New York Theatre Workshop is Fourth Arts Block June Member of the Month
On the dark stage at the New York Theatre Workshop, a projected image of an aging Susan Sontag slowly puffs a cigarette, looking quizzically at her audience. It is the wise face of someone who contemplates her life through her memoirs, a much less humiliated countenance than I would have if someone were reading what my 15-year old self wrote in my less-than intellectually stimulating diaries.
Director Marianne Weems’s Sontag: Reborn is a one-woman performance in collaboration with the Builders Association. Adapted and performed by the inimitable Moe Angelos, the 75-minute play takes the audience through literary critic and author Susan Sontag’s personal life. Devised from Sontag’s journals from 1947 to 1980, Reborn is an intimate portrait of the writer, dwelling less on the politics of her writings on everything from camp to philosophy and more on the woman behind the desk.
Based on the books “Reborn” and “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks,” Reborn was originally put on by the Builders Association at the Public Theater in 2012 as part of the Under the Radar Festival. It seems only appropriate that the play be put on at the New York Theatre Workshop as Sontag was familiar with the institution, having been a board member of the Builders Association since its founding in 1994 until her death in 2004 and having put on her play Alice in Bed at New York Theatre Workshop in 2000.
Interestingly, the majority of Angelos’s performance is given behind a desk on stage. While the larger, projected Sontag watches and interrupts intermittently with sly remarks and revelations, the physical manifestation of the writer is the memory of Sontag at different ages, writing at her desk. Another projection hovers above stage, an aerial view of the surface of the desk: pencils and knick-knacks mingle with books and pages that have been torn in frustration; a coffee mug is slowly filling with cigarette ash while the writer pens her golden words.
The performance is a synchronized dance between the two Sontags, a desk, and further projections of photographs and music, offering visual snapshots of the New York City, Paris and San Francisco that Sontag would have known. At the young age of 16, Sontag was accepted to Berkeley and quickly transferred to the University of Chicago to do her post-graduate studies. She continued her higher education at Oxford while taking time to also study at the Sorbonne—quite an impressive resume for an 18 year old.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Angelos’s performance is her transformation from the precocious, angst-ridden, teenage Sontag— “What is it to be young in years and suddenly wakened to the anguish, the urgency of life?”—to the more solemn adult who questions her sexuality and longs for clarity of thought when it comes to matters of the heart.
Reborn is a complex piece of theater, successfully portraying the nuances of Sontag’s ever-thinking brain while shrinking away from high, intellectual abstractions in favor of the more base emotions of lust and death. Angelos’s performance is truly spectacular as she convincingly renders Sontag’s ghosts from memory. As Sontag concludes about her journal writing: “I write because it gives me pleasure,” so too must we indulge in the pleasure of experiencing this performance.
Written by Erica Cheung; Sontag: Reborn runs Now-June 30th