new york

“The Photographer/Far from the Truth”

brooklyn academy of music

The central conceit of this elaborate production is a provocative one: that both sides of the very contemporary opposition between melodrama and Modernism were embodied in the life of 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge—the one through a famous scandal in which he shot his wife’s lover, the other in his photographic work, the famous motion studies of humans and animals. The idea for a work on Muybridge was conceived by Rob Malasch for the Holland Festival in 1982. The score, by Philip Glass, and Malasch’s three-part structure—play, slide show, dance—were both carried over to this new production, but nearly everything else was changed, as well-known figures in the downtown performance scene were called on to flesh out the initial concept. JoAnne Akalaitis staged the first segment, from a new book by Robert Coe; sets and costumes were designed by Santo Loquasto, lighting by Jennifer Tipton; “movement” was “constructed”—the program’s words—by David Gordon, and performed by Valda Setterfield and other members of Gordon’s Pick-Up Co.

Despite occasional telling moments and striking images, though, the production as a whole is simply disjointed, an overblown mishmash of ideas and effects that never coheres into an experience larger than the sum of its parts. The evening gets off to a bad start. Coe makes Muybridge, his wife Flora, and her lover abstract (they are referred to only by their first names); the new subtitle was added, Akalaitis has said, “to emphasize that this is not a docudrama.” Unfortunately, what it becomes instead is a play of ideas, not of people. Coe pastiched together his text from a wide variety of sources, including Lewis Carroll, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Ruskin, Mary Shelley, and Max Ernst. This congeries of references to such topics as photography and truth, beauty and romance, is often staged so that several characters speak at once—or rather recite, since the texts were written to be read, not spoken. When this familiar performance device works, the layers of the script provide unexpected juxtapositions of words and imagery; at other times, though, the effect is simply one of confusion.

For some reason much of this first section is played as farce, with Ellen McElduff giggling her way through her role as Flora as a stereotypical dumb blonde. The men around her are presented as passionate and sincere, while she seems to be a fugitive from “Three’s Company.” In the extensive press notes for the production Akalaitis aptly points out the connection between Victorian melodrama and sexual repression, but this farcical typing undercuts any attempts the play might make to present that notion. The Keystone Kops quality of this section is extended in other ways as well—from time to time a bald black muscle man in circus tights (Arthur Williams) runs across the stage, now stopping to flex, now with a squirming blonde mermaid slung over his shoulder. Meanwhile, the other characters—including a spiritualist, an angel, and so on—continue their intellectual litany.

In the second section an elaborate slide show is presented on a scrim that covers the proscenium, its semitransparency allowing images to be projected both at the front and the back of the stage. Beginning with a lecture about 19th-century esthetics delivered while photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron and academic nude studies are shown, the slides proceed to Muybridge’s motion studies, sometimes flashed onto the screen one at a time and sometimes in quick succession, to animate the actions depicted in them. Gradually a narrative of sorts emerges between the men in the pictures, who are generally shown in such active pursuits as wrestling or running, and the women, either nude or in diaphanous gowns, who dance, or pose coyly. In one repeated sequence, a woman covers her face as if in shame. Behind all of this Glass’ music swirls and whirs, in its most effective presentation in the production, with a squawky oompah and a sinuous violin line playing off one another in an opposition that suggests that of the men and women in the photographs. Elsewhere the music seems to be just going through the familiar motions of Glass’ style, straining after meaning but not finding it.

The last section is the most successful, perhaps because much of Gordon’s work has involved the abstraction into dance of simple tasks like those Muybridge dealt with in his motion studies. Gordon manages to poke fun at the sentimentality in Muybridge’s images while at the same time recognizing that his analysis of motion shares the investigative spirit of much Modern art, and also certain of its motifs—for example, the grid. On one side of the stage the silver-haired Setterfield, in a short, flimsy gown, splashes in a shallow pink-edged pool, striking awkward poses that suggest the individual frames in Muybridge’s series. Looking like the White Rock lady on downers, she seems both entranced and bemused by her enterprise. Meanwhile, around her, other dancers in Victorian costume jump and spin, now alone, now in coordinated movements. After a while they are joined by the actors from the first section. The striking image seems to sum up the production: a view of Victorian culture in all its scientism and sentimentality, seen through a Modernist filter.

Charles Hagan