theater (reviews)

review: sontag: reborn

Sontag: Reborn

Based on the journals of Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff
Adapted and performed by Moe Angelos
Directed by Marianne Weems
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
January 4, 2012 — January 15, 2012
under the radar festival web site


Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 15, 2012

  • “Childhood is a terrible waste of time.”
  • “A snub is a device for establishing social distance.”
  • “Physical beauty is enormously, almost morbidly, important to me.”
  • “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.”

Moe Angelos on stage and on video. Image by Sara Krulwich.

In an effort to assemble my scattered thoughts on the threads of the life of Susan Sontag (1933-2004), an American girl with precocious and awesome intellect (Berkeley then University of Chicago at 16, marriage and motherhood by 19, Harvard Ph.D. and divorce by her late 20s, independent travel and relationships and publishing for the remainder of her life), I note that this day of writing, January 16, is the anniversary of her 1933 birth. So my personal course of making sense of a theatrical effort to make sense of a far-ranging intellectual life begins in facts. And in this delicious and parsimonious and occasionally quite funny theatrical treatment of the young woman in conversation (for our benefit) with herself as a middle-aged women as image projected on scrim, we learn about the woman, we feel the universal young girl yearnings, we respond to delectable theatrical images. Image and words and the story of a distinctly powerful American life. Fact and theatre artfully merged.

The text from which the adapter and performer Moe Angelos has drawn inspiration and raw material for this creation is the first of three volumes of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks.  This volume Reborn (1947-1963) captures an active journal-er creating herself from the ages of fourteen through (in this volume) the age of thirty.  In the intervening years she moves from a suburban childhood she deems dreary and repressive, moves at 16 to begin college studies at Berkeley and explores her sexuality with calm reflection and a young person’s passionate pain.  And in this piece of theatre directed by Marianne Weems, lit by Laura Mroczkowski, in a spare desk-and-book-focused set designed by Joshua Higgason, with delightful animated projections designed Austin Swiser that provide not only stills and documents and pieces of famous films (Greta Garbo is particularly effective in one sequence) but also the second character in the piece.  Part of the projections is Ms. Angelos in costume as the middle-aged Sontag with white-streaked raven hair, reflecting independently and sometimes in choreographed syncopation with the live actress below, commenting on and observing her own past, powerfully dramatizing this rifling through her own journals from a remove of some years.

The director and creator/actor reflect on the source materials as their inspiration in the performance “Program Notes.”  The notes indicate that Sontag would re-read her early journals, often annotating passages and leaving margin notes. Any active long-term journal-er understands this impulse — at minimum one wants to clarify shaky handwriting. In the hands of some there might be the instinct to change history and obfuscate facts, but not for the rigidly honest Sontag, this is made clear. This entire program is a kind of annotation and program note — journals contextualized.  The Notes go on to reflect on the competing impulses of Sontag’s deeply private personality and the record of her journal and its “complex, alluring self-portrait.”  They conclude: “It is too difficult not to look.”  Yes.

This homage and session of provocative, entertaining, and plainspoken truth-telling is a pleasure. It is indeed impossible not to look. Happy birthday, Ms. Sontag.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 16, 2012)

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