June 29, 2013

"Sontag: Reborn" is as Original as Its Subject

My mother gave me my first diary when I was eight years old and I continued to keep a journal into my 30s, thinking, I’m now chagrined to confess, that I might one day be famous and so should leave a road map showing how I had become so.

I assume that the young Susan Sontag had much the same thoughts. Only while I was checking out Nancy Drew on my adolescent trips to the library, she was racing through André Gide. Sontag: Reborn, the one-woman show that is ending its run at New York Theatre Workshop this weekend, provides other keen insights into what made Sontag, who died in 2004, perhaps the last great public intellectual in America and certainly one of the most fascinating.
I’m sorry that I’m just now getting to talking about this show because it’s one of the most thought-provoking I’ve seen this year.  Moe Angelos, a co-founder of the theatrical group Five Lesbian Brothers, has crafted a one-woman show out of excerpts from the journals Sontag started keeping in her teens. 

They're presented as an interior duologue between the younger Sontag and her older self, represented by the projection of a prerecorded image of Angelos, brandishing a cigarette and flaunting the skunk-like streak of white hair that became Sontag’s trademark in her later years.

 But it’s the younger Sontag who beguiles. Angelos makes her an earnest and often arrogant young woman, aware of her prodigious intellect (she started college at 15) and desperate to show it off. The young Susan lists the books she’s reading, the films (mainly foreign, of course) that she wants to see and, later, her wanderings across the intellectual landscape of Europe in the ‘50s.  
Other journal excerpts lament her marriage at 17 to a man 11 years older and the motherhood that quickly followed with the birth of her son David, whom she would leave for long stretches of his boyhood but who would eventually become the editor of her posthumously published journals. And still other entries agonize over her awakening identity as a gay woman and her tempestuous love affair with the director María Irene Fornés.

Angelos and director Marianne Weems have worked hard to find inventive ways to turn what might have been a boring reading into an engrossing theatrical experience. Sontag Reborn makes the most integrated use of video projections that I’ve yet seen. 
As Sontag’s observations pour out, video projections of her writing and photographic scenes of the places she describes fill large parts of the scrim, creating the feeling you’ve climbed inside her brain and are watching as the ideas are formed and her genius honed. Big kudos to video designer Austin Switser and lighting designer Laura Mroczkowski.

The play, which runs a tight 75 minutes, ends just before the publication of Sontag’s groundbreaking essay “Notes on Camp” (which you can read by clicking here).  
Unlike my more learned friend Jessie, who saw the show with me, I’d read very little Sontag beforehand and I had worried that Sontag: Reborn might be too heady for me. But I was riveted throughout.  

“Intelligence is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas,” Sontag once said.  Hers, of course, was first class.  As is this little show.

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