nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
January 4, 2012
“...and what is it to be young in years and suddenly wakened to the anguish, the urgency of life?” wrote a sixteen-year-old Susan Sontag in her journal. She was about to head off to study at Berkeley, beginning a long literary and academic career that would make her one of the 20th century's most respected writers and thinkers. A peculiar and charming quirk of her early diaries, recently edited and published by her son, David Reiff, is her habit of subsequently reading and annotating her old entries (“What am I to do?” “Enjoy yourself, of course”). This reflexive dialogue between her past and future selves provided the framework for The Builders Association's exquisite rendition of the journals, adapted and performed fantastically by Moe Angelos under the shrewd direction of Marianne Weems.
Young Susan sits at her desk—a tectonically shifting landscape of the journals she rapidly fills and stacks of erudite books from her frequent and extensive lists of art for consumption. Projected imposingly on a scrim in front of her, old Susan, with cigarette in hand and iconic white swoop of hair, reads through the journals in concert with her younger self, providing occasional commentary. Behind the desk is a large screen showing a live video feed of the desktop from above, onto which are projected ghostly handwriting, images, and videos, bringing vibrant life to the inert texts.
This elaborate interplay of video and projection, designed by Austin Switser, is stunning. The journals show a prismatically self-referential mind, wrestling with itself (“Ideas disturb the levelness of life”) to find definition through articulation as a writer. This is exceedingly well-captured by Weems and Switser's matrix of past and present, physical and virtual, all animated by the dancing, self-writing word. The video design is indispensably and subtly supported by Laura Mroczkowski's lights and Dan Dobson's sound, creating a design that is seamlessly coherent in both concept and form, masterfully executed.
The journals cover Sontag's life from when she was fifteen through her twenties. It is a seething, voracious mind struggling to find a voice, to reconcile her lesbian experiences with her failed marriage and anxieties over motherhood, to begin mapping out the ideas and questions that would become her life's work. Moe Angelos portrays this huge range of experience and growth with subtlety and charm. Her transformation from the urgency of youthful ambition to the emerging confidence of a working artist is organic and honest, and will ring true to anyone who has known (or been) an anxious young intellectual coming of age.
In a moment when projection is often used gratuitously or lazily, The Builders Association continues to produce work that is exemplary of how astutely-applied digital media can expand and enhance the space of performance to extraordinary effect. Mapping the roiling, reflexive flows and eddies of Sontag's emerging mind onto the theatrical spacetime creates a far more nuanced and accurate representation of her than a more literal narrative could ever hope to achieve. Weems had previously collaborated with Sontag on creative projects, and that loving familiarity is apparent in the work. This is perhaps as perfect a tribute as anyone could hope to make to “The Dark Lady of American Letters.”