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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman in Sontag: Reborn

Few people who read Susan Sontag’s work—essays, fiction, nonfiction, plays—feel lukewarm about it. The polarizing cultural critic’s proclivity for using her vast breadth of knowledge to make bold, grand assertions (sometimes bypassing explanation) dares the reader to be either with her or against her. Either way, it’s unlikely most would find her acumen easy to relate to—which makes the New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Sontag: Reborn delightfully surprising in its warm theatricalization of her diaries.

The one-woman show, adapted and performed by Moe Angelos and directed by Marianne Weems, begins when Sontag is 14 and follows her emotional and professional development through the publication of her first novel, The Benefactor, at age 30. The writer’s precocious intelligence is evident early on, as she recounts a rigorous self-prescribed reading list that includes, among other things, lots of French author André Gide, whom she admires for his love of himself. (Intense introspection becomes a defining theme of the play.)

Behind Angelos, Sontag’s meticulous, handwritten notes appear in ghostly penmanship. On a screen in front of her, an older Sontag (also played by Angelos) looks on, offering commentary. Angelos remains sandwiched between these two screens throughout the performance; the effect of this design is both theatrical in its layering of generations and distracting in its slight obscuring of the action onstage.

Angelos portrays the younger Sontag with a pluckiness that seems incongruous with the severe older Sontag whose image hovers before her. But the contrast is affecting in that the spiritedness of the younger version seems more in keeping with the passionate tone of her diaries (the journals have been edited by her son, David Rieff, and published as Reborn (2008) and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh (2012), with a third still to come).

A pivotal moment arrives when young Sontag has her first sexual encounter with a woman she refers to as “H.” Transformed by the experience, she realizes, “I never fully comprehended that it was possible to live through your body,” and resolves to do so going forward. Why, then, with what she recognizes in herself to be “lesbian tendencies,” does she conform to the social pressure to marry and have a child?

Whether Sontag ever explains these choices in her diaries—whether she even understands them herself—remains unclear. What we do see is a woman driven by the need to form an independent identity, who escapes her marriage by striving to achieve intellectual greatness while riddled with artistic self-doubt. In these moments of naked self-reflection, sometimes brought on by heartbreak from female lovers after her divorce, the emotional core of the character—and perhaps of Sontag herself—is revealed. “The notebook is where the artist is heroic to himself,” she writes. Indeed, in her private honesty, Sontag is at her bravest.

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A BEAUTIFUL MIND

In an interview with the New York Times 20 years ago, Susan Sontag remarked, “All my work says be serious, be passionate, wake up.” Adaptor-performer Moe Angelos and director Marianne Weems seem to have taken these words as inspiration for Sontag: Reborn, a solo drama based on Sontag’s recently released diaries, edited by her son, David Rieff. In this serious and passionate play, which runs at New York Theatre Workshop, Angelos incarnates Sontag as a febrile teenager and the graying lady of American letters. The Builders Association, which Weems heads, always makes remarkable use of technology, and, in this piece, live performance, live video, prerecorded sequences, and animations of the writer’s own prose all whirl together to resurrect one dauntingly complicated woman.

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays, 7 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: May 28. Continues through June 30, 2013

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The Disorientalism of Continuous City

You won’t find Marianne Weems, artistic director of the Builders Association, on Facebook or MySpace. Running a theater company on top of heading Carnegie-Mellon’s directing department provides her with more than enough social networking. “The last thing I need at the end of the day,” she says with a laugh, “is to hear from like 250 more people.” But Weems is no digital neophyte: Her glossy stage productions—created with an onstage coterie of designers, technicians, and performers—invariably come loaded up with streaming video and bleeping digital relays. That, says Weems, is because she’s interested in the new social fabrics that 21st-century media create, not the gleaming gadgets themselves.

The idea for the multimedia group’s newest piece, Continuous City—which runs at BAM’s Next Wave Festival November 18 to 22—stems from Weems’s relationship with her seven-year-old goddaughter, who lives in Indiana. The two spend a lot of time iChatting on video. Weems, now in her mid-forties, started to wonder: “How do children perceive connection? How are they assimilating, in a healthy way, the idea that iChatting is connection?”

Continuous City—written by Harry Sinclair and directed by Weems—centers around a little girl who sits at home tracing her road-warrior father’s movements across continents and time zones. Weems wants the piece to evoke the “dislocation and displacement and the compression of geography that’s brought on by contemporary technologies.” She stresses that she’s also teasing out the phenomenon’s humorous side: “The whole visual pleasure in the show, with visual jokes, is about mistaking places—thinking that you’re in one place and finding you’re in another.”

Weems and company experienced that disorientation firsthand as part of the creative process: The video team traveled to Shanghai, Los Angeles, Tijuana, Toronto, and Las Vegas to shoot footage meant to appear from the perspective of the globe-trotting central character (who never appears onstage).

Despite all the travel, the group remains on familiar artistic terrain. Since founding the New York performance group in 1994, Weems has set her sights on networked technology and its impact on global infrastructure and individual identity. Jet Lag (1998), created with New York architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, explored the true story of a woman enmeshed in a child-custody battle, who took 167 consecutive transatlantic flights until she died of jet lag. Alladeen, mounted in 2003 with the British ensemble Motiroti, depicted Bangalore’s call centers and customers. Super Vision, their 2005 Next Wave offering, dealt with data and domesticity.

Those productions, the director now says, formed a trilogy centered on identifiable issues. But she sees Continuous City as a break: “It’s much more impressionistic and more, dare I say, emotional.”

This time, Weems is also going 3G, incorporating new interactive elements into the live performance. One of the characters is an Internet mogul launching an enterprise named “Xubu.” So Weems and her colleagues—who recently worked with Yahoo’s media lab while in residence at UC Berkeley—created a real-life website (xubu.cc) and invited visitors to contribute video testimonials describing their “transnational experiences.” Contributions will be culled, and selected segments will appear in each evening’s performance, which Weems estimates is about a third improvised. (“They’re like a Greek chorus,” she theorizes about the clips.)

How all these strands will intersect remains to be seen when the house lights dim and the machines boot up. But Weems hopes the show’s dramaturgy can help enlarge the American theater’s intellectual bandwidth, while allowing audiences to take a fresh look at the connections—virtual and otherwise—we think we’ve secured. “It’s both a celebration,” she says, “and a critique.”

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Message In A Bottle

Perhaps only the magic of globalization could produce scenes of customer-service trainees in Bangalore delivering oral presentations on their favorite Hollywood sitcoms in newly acquired Yankee drawls. Alladeen, a collaboration between the London ensemble Motiroti and New York’s Builders Association, muses on the neo-colonial absurdities of Indian telephone operators trained to use American accents, vocabularies, and personae to put customers across the ocean at ease. Video clips of real-life telemarketers introduce the ensemble’s dramatizations; stage characters sometimes lip-synch along as transcribed excerpts are projected overhead. Soundbites steadily burble commentary as each trainee undergoes a personal drama with a sitcom’s dimension and depth: One woman gets fired for “mother tongue interference” while another daydreams of marrying a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who calls to book a flight.

Alladeen, directed by Marianne Weems, makes the unremarkable observation that global capitalism is irrevocably letting genies out of their bottles, and the production overkills that theme throughout. After each trainee chooses a phone alias from the names of the Friends characters, Weems repeatedly superimposes images of the sitcom actors onto still shots of the trainees in case the implications weren’t already clear. As a successful service rep climbs the corporate ladder, he loses his native identity somewhere in a London karaoke bar. Oil lamps and advertisements for Aladdin movies pop up overhead to signal the mythic transformations underway. An LED board flashes, “I wish I could be a CEO.”

Despite their fieldwork in India’s corporate cubicles, the creators of Alladeen haven’t uncovered much on a phenomenon already familiar from newspaper reports. Part of this redundancy stems from the piece’s awkward theatrical structure: The video documentation tends to preempt an often flat staging. Complicating things more, the multimedia environment—alluringly designed by Keith Khan, Ali Zaidi, and Christopher Kondek—suggests an ambivalence not always evident in the dramatic treatment. Alladeen can’t seem to decide whether it’s revealing the multiple faces of globalization or evoking an insidious, superficial monoculture. With streaming digital graphics and a soundtrack of techno-throbbing, the production may rely too much on the technology of global capitalism to critique its effects in fresh terms. More points of contrast might help: Is the telemarketers’ experience different overseas than it would be at home? Would cultural incongruities in other globalized economies—say, Ireland’s—seem as comical? Despite its visual immediacy, Alladeen can be as hard to locate as the voices at the other end of the help line.

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A Long Day’s Journey Into Flight

It’s a moment easy to miss, as the Builders Association’s unnerving new production accumulates layers of sound, video, and computer animation. A boy on-screen, filmed as if by a surveillance system as he wanders an airport, suddenly turns and makes a few fleeting, idiotic faces at the camera. At first, his home-movie mugging seems just a non sequitur, a refreshing mockery of all the technology surrounding him—and us. But it also comes to epitomize the artists’ own ambivalence toward their machines. As conceived by the celebrated architects Diller + Scofidio, and directed by Marianne Weems, Jet Lag is both stylish and self-conscious, its makers aware of, and sometimes anxious about, how easily they assimilate to a mediated world. The result is a showcase for the artificial that often proves (unwittingly?) the resilience of the human.

This opposition also shapes the production’s two stories. In the first, Roger Dearborn (Jeff Webster) tries to sail alone around the world. He fails, disappearing several hundred miles offshore, but not before making videos meant to prove he had gone much further. The second story (based, like the first, on fact) depicts obsessive travel of a different order. Doris (Dale Soules) kidnaps her grandson, Lincoln (Dominique Dibbell), and together they make more than 150 transatlantic flights, turning around as soon as they land so as not to be caught, before Doris finally dies, midflight, of jet lag.

In these intermediate zones—on or above the ocean, in an airport lounge—machines supply the itinerant characters their sense of place. Roger is surrounded by radios, radars, and cameras, and is tethered electronically to onshore observers seated Wooster Group-style at a long table covered with even more gadgets. (The display gives the lie, of course, to Roger’s repeated boast that he’s “all alone out here, with nothing to rely on but my own strength.”) The characters spend much of their time reporting and recording Roger’s location, just as, in the second part, air-traffic control and other personnel monitor every move of travelers determined to elude surveillance.

Yet for all their zeal, the geography of Jet Lag remains unknowable. Roger’s bulletins on his whereabouts are often rendered incoherent by delays in the transmission; characters talk over one another, never making contact. The witty scene design exacerbates this confusion. A small screen showing video of the ocean rocks back and forth behind Roger. Before he tells us he’s in a storm, he sprays an atomizer on his face. Manufacturing his environment, he could be anywhere—or nowhere more remote than the stage.

Doris and Lincoln are equally unreliable witnesses to their own landscape. Their inevitable disorientation among time zones deepens as the computer animation becomes more elaborate. On the big screen, airplanes, escalators, and indoor walkways move while the actors stay put. During the final flight, we enjoy a pilot’s-eye view of the horizon, but quickly lose all sense of up and down as the plane banks sharply during takeoff (or is it landing?). Moreover, what we’re seeing on-screen may be nothing more than a video game. Like Roger, these travelers cover a lot of ground but never see an authentic landscape.

Not everything in Jet Lag is mediated, and in these glimpses of naturalness its analysis of technology’s impact is especially sharp. In Part I, pride of place on the long table is reserved for a manual typewriter, its nervous clatter competing with the other, processed sounds. In Part II, Lincoln fidgets incessantly, as if his motor system were resisting the scheduled movement imposed on him. Doris rebels in her own way: She vigorously cleans a waiting-room chair, determined to claim and then domesticate at least this one piece of territory. The fact that the sound of her scrubbing is created by another actor at a microphone only emphasizes the poignancy of her doomed effort. Most memorable is the understated performance of Heaven Phillips as Dearborn’s wife. When she learns of his fate, she shakes off the embrace of an oversolicitous publicist: His feelings are as manufactured as everything else in Jet Lag. Here, only her vacant stare and hollow voice can claim to be spontaneous.