Sunday, November 6, 2016

"Letters to a Man" - A Penetrating Look at a Psyche in Torment

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

An ever-changing landscape of the mind and one who is powerless to correct what is happening. These are some of the images, thoughts and feeling that come from the fascinating Letter to a Man. Presented by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson, the show recently finished a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival.

Russian dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) was, in his time, the most celebrated male dancer in the Western world, before falling victim to schizophrenia. Said condition, coming on towards the end of the World War I, and which would eventually lead to a more than two decade period of self-imposed isolation. The play is based on Nijinsky's diary which he wrote in 1919, shortly before his mental collapse completely overtook him. Baryshnikov portraying Nijinsky as he starts to emerge from his lengthy period of isolation toward the close of World War II.

Both Baryshnikov and Wilson - the two collaborated on the direction, as well as several other technical elements of the work - clearly know the story they want to tell. However, they have no intention of making it easy for the audience by providing them a road map for what is to follow. Traveling though the jumbled landscape of Nijinsky's mind, there is no clear straight line of story here; no liner or logical progression. Instead there are bits and pieces of information - faded guideposts, if you will - consisting of non-sequiturs coupled with elements of clarity. The audience thus left to make the connections as they try to follow the journey the piece takes them on.

It's a journey which takes the Nijinsky character through places both dark and vast, many of which offer the possibility of alternate meanings. Such as one scene taking place in what appears to be a Spartan room with a high barred window on one wall. A place which could suggests either a church or a prison. Another example of this continual uncertainty occurs during a scene where water is projected on a wall, containing images that are just enough out of focus to render them indistinct, yet clearly having some significance in the overall picture.

If there is one constant running throughout, it's how the small the character Baryshnikov portrays consistently appears when compared to the rest of the staging. Whether clad in a tuxedo and prancing about to show music; wearing suspenders, his body altered to look fat and old; being completely in shadow while moving gracefully about an almost empty stage; sitting in a chair while in a straitjacket or appearing upside down, everything we see seems deliberately arranged to dwarf the character.

The separate sequences are often accompanied by various words and phrases, ones usually repeated more than once. One particular word that keeps coming up in this fashion is "suffocation". Referring, one assumes, to what Nijinsky himself was feeling during his periods of mental struggle. On the other side of the coin, the audience hears specific sentences that are indeed grounded in reality while also tinged with a sense of humor. Such as Nijinsky equating war to fights with his mother-in-law, or his love of lunatics as they are easier to understand. Nijinsky's own name is continually repeated - and often coupled with the terms "God" and "Christ", yet just as often standing on its own as if continually asserting his own sense of identity.

Just as the play's sights and sounds (the latter including a child's laughter and gunshots) deliberately jumble time and linear progression, so too it is with the music used. Tunes such as Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave," sounding like a scratchy 78 RPM recording; Stephen Foster's "De Camptown Races" and Napoleon XIV's "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaaa" all figuring into the story presented. Other music styles presented include jazz, blues and a few with some rather gothic overtones.

Another interesting point is that Baryshnikov and Wilson never allow the Nijinsky character to come across as fully human. Rather Baryshnikov portrays him to be somewhat garish, almost a caricature - some movements and vocal tones calling to mind Joel's Grey's portrayal of the MC in Cabaret - a man hiding behind a facade. Baryshnikov does a great job with the role, making him fascinating to watch throughout. This total comment to bringing this story to life is also present throughout the work of Wilson and the rest of the creative team. All of whom work together in perfect unison to ensure the work has maximum impact.

Offering a very interesting subject matter and told in a way that requires the audience to think about what they're seeing, Letter to a Man makes for quite a satisfying experience.

Letter to a Man
Direction, set design and lighting concept by Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov
Based on the diary of Vaslav Nijinsky
Text by Christian Dumais-Lvowski
Dramaturgy by Darryl Pinckney
Music by Hal Willner
Costumes by Jacques Reynaud
Collaboration to movements and spoken text by Lucinda Childs
Lighting Design by A.J. Weissbard
Associate Set Design by Annick Lavillée-Benny
Set design by Nick Sagar and Ella Wahlstrõm
Video Design by Tomek Jeziorski

Presented at The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater as part of the BAM "Next Wave Festival"

Closed: October 30, 2016

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