Performance

Nice Troy

Anne Carson, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, 2019. Performance view, The Shed, New York, April 9, 2019. Renée Fleming and Ben Whishaw. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

NORMA JEANE BAKER/MARILYN MONROE: a well of sadness/a siren of the silver screen. “War creates two categories of persons,” wrote poet and translator Anne Carson in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy. “Those who outlive it and those who don’t. Both carry wounds.” Stardom also splits one into two—a celebrity, a person—and like war, advances and succeeds on the brute power of the myths that fuel it. (Few have ever pillaged this world defending unadorned fact.) And although it is true that a persona is not a war, it is also true that Norma Jeane didn’t survive the bombshell.

This is the Nile and I’m a liar.

Those are both true.

Are you confused yet?

So asks the heroine of this screwball stunner of a text—a poem, a monologue, punctuated throughout with nine lessons in the history of war spun around subjects such as “wound,” the verb “to take,” “slavery,” and “someone, anyone, a person, a certain person, who?” Carson entwines the stories of Norma Jeane—the sweet-faced pinup girl who would one day be recast by Hollywood, then by life, as Marilyn Monroe—and Euripides’s Helen, whose lore was re-angled by the Greek tragedian from the vain, whorish woman held responsible for the mass destruction of the Trojan War to the grieving mother, survivor of kidnapping and rape, and political pawn who never once set foot in the city that made her infamous. (Lovely, the other doubling here: Carson entwining herself with Euripides, her coauthor in a sense of this recuperative traumedy.) Here Norma Jeane tells the story of how her husband Arthur, king of Sparta and New York, invaded Troy reportedly to rescue her while she, safely stowed at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, is reduced to “box office poison.” Romantic love is a strategic cover for violence—“I am after all his most prized possession—the Greeks / value women less than pure gold / but slightly ahead of oxen, sheep, or goats”—and in its name, Norma Jeane was wrenched from her daughter Hermione, whose absence she mourns as “my own soul walking around in another body.” Cameos are made by the likes of Fritz Lang, Truman Capote, and Pearl Bailey.

Inside a theater, the Nile is a setting, a liar, an actor, and any confusion about what is true is either by design or the likely fallout of all this role-playing. For one of the Shed’s most anticipated commissions of its inaugural season, British theater auteur Katie Mitchell staged Norma Jeane Baker of Troy not by a river, not with the appearance of Norma Jeane or any of her significant Others, and not as a meditation on war and how women suffer the consequences of defamatory, predatory fictions. Instead, the director leveled Carson’s tale to all but mouthmeal for a two-hander played inside a generic office on the night of December 31, 1963. Actor Ben Wishaw was cast as a jittery businessman who lets himself in after-hours, and singer Renée Fleming played the genteel stenographer he enlists to assist him in transcribing Norma Jean’s story, Carson’s writing, as he dictates it.

Anne Carson, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, 2019. Rehearsal view, Jerwood Studios, London. Ben Whishaw (foreground) and Renée Fleming (background). Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

For ninety minutes, Fleming and Wishaw—a luminous duo if ever there was one—did their best to make things interesting, but the scenario they were given was oppressively thin. The always marvelous Wishaw spoke as Fleming typed along, recording him, singing passages to him, with him, less amanuensis than an alighted angel, a tender force. As the Steno paper spilled across the desk and piled up on the floor, Wishaw gradually swapped his suit for a girdle, a bra and some padding, a platinum wig, and a white halter dress, becoming “Marilyn Monroe” (a drag, it must be noted, first worn by Norma Jeane). His left arm is badly scarred, his flesh once burned—in a war? In the end, perhaps from the physical pain, perhaps from the trauma of gender—it’s never made clear—he downs a handful of pills and then collapses, presumably, dead, on top of Fleming’s desk.

Mitchell’s reframing flattened so much of the work’s dimension that one might think she only skimmed Carson’s poem. Her choices needlessly aggravated, and seemed to underestimate her audience too. One example: She directed Wishaw to deliver the punctuation and line breaks during the opening section of Norma Jeane, a move that’s about as effective in illuminating the raw literary material as piping in the clang of a hammer hitting a chisel next to the statue of David. Mine isn’t a demand for literary purity; it’s an expectation for direction as rich, engaging, and urgent as the text it’s bringing to life. Virtually any play could have been slotted into Mitchell’s scenario. (Near proof of this point: Earlier this spring, NYU Skirball Center saw a revival of Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, for which the company performs F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby verbatim inside a generic office.) This production of Norma Jeane woefully never transcended the appearance of an exercise, never bloomed into a total work, in large part because it backed away from devising compelling and imaginative solutions to the challenges Carson poses: how to revise a famous tale to reveal the false truths that shape and warp women and men; how to pave space for possible collisions between stage and screen; how to tickle and tug at the thin membranes that separate person from persona, performer from icon. “The play is a tragedy,” Carson wrote, with unintended prescience, “Watch closely now / how I save it from sorrow.”

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy was presented at The Shed in New York City from April 6 to May 19.

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