Theda Bara, Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks — elusive, seductive women of silent film — who trafficked in mystery and sensation; whose lives became legend. All were rebels and rule breakers; some flamed out when talking pictures arrived; others managed the transition to go on to greater fame. One diva missing from this pantheon is Alla Nazimova, a star of the Moscow Arts Theater and Broadway, whose charisma and talent took her to Hollywood and whose flamboyance and self-assured lesbianism destined her to destruction by the Production Code, male hegemony and discrimination. Her star on Hollywood’s walk of fame tells us that she lived, but not how she lived.
Nazimova was a brilliant actress, film producer and director — whose house parties at her “House of Alla” were legendary. Her manner of living was an open book, but she nevertheless exuded a kind of mystique. I wish Places captured more of that spirit. In her storytelling Romy Nordlinger has missed the opportunity to draw us into the life of this fascinating woman, to experience the awed frisson she left in her wake. Nordlinger also neglects what is perhaps the most important part of Nazimova’s story: what happened after Hollywood?
I applaud Nordlinger’s commitment both in her pursuit of Nazimova’s life story and her immersion in the character. She creates some touching emotional moments, particularly when Nazimova discovers Russian theater and again when Nazimova watches her Hollywood dreams fade. Nordlinger is at her best when she is not ‘acting.’ However, in the end she falls short of illuminating significantly the life of the woman she impersonates.
Ms. Nordlinger’s costume represents another missed opportunity. Behind her we are treated to image after image of the glamorous Nazimova in gorgeous dresses. Why would you not choose to recreate one of these? Why would anyone waste the opportunity to revel in some 1920’s opulence — layers of chiffon, a few feathers, a drop waist, an embarrassment of tulle – something. Instead, Nordlinger appears in a rather clinical black slip with a little fringe and eventually a black cut velvet negligee, the only period item in her wardrobe.
The sound and the set design do not miss, however. Adam Burns has created a dramatic backdrop consisting of a series of fluttering muslin strips onto which a succession of images are projected. This backdrop is both reflection and window into the past; it smacks of mystery and romance. Nick T. Moore‘s sound combines period melodies and startling punctuation that anchor the performance.
Nazimova the Hollywood star, director, producer, out lesbian, epitomized ‘nevertheless she persisted,’ and I hope Nordlinger does the same, digging into her material and clarifying the storytelling for future performances. Nazimova’s story is a goldmine.
Places, presented by Yonder Window Theatre Company and Parity Promotions; written and performed by Rory Nordlinger; directed by Katie McHugh; costumes by Maya Graffagna; sound by Nick T. Moore; graphic and projection design by Adam Burns. Tamara Geisler, Production Stage Manager; Jason Beckman, Assistant Director. At the 59E59th Theatre, 59th East 59th St. July 21, 28 & 29, 8:30 p.m., July 22nd, 6:30 p.m., July 23 and 30th, 4:30 p.m.; and 25 performances over the month of August (4th – 27th) at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. placestheplay.com; Parity Productions; we are civil disobedience; 59E59.