Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, which serves as one of the opening attractions at the handsome new edifice called The Shed in Hudson Yards, is described by playwright/poet/classicist Anne Carson as a melologue: “A performance piece that is alternately spoken and sung.” Despite the able and game ministrations of Renée Fleming and Ben Whishaw—game as in I’ve signed on so I’ll try to do anything they tell me—the enterprise is incomprehensible.
In a cogent program note, Carson explains that she takes Euripides’ “myth of Helen, legendarily the harlot of Troy and destroyer of two civilizations, and says, What if we consider all this from the woman’s point of view?“ She goes on to explain that “the #MeToo movement has given us new ways to think about female icons like Helen or Marilyn Monroe, new ways to revolve the traditional male version of such events 360 degrees and find different, deeper sorrows there.”
You might well wonder just how Carson and director Katie Mitchell (formerly of the RSC, the National Theatre and the Royal Court) will accomplish this. After sitting through the results—which handfuls of patrons did not at the performance attended, brusquely streaming out during the intermissionless proceedings—you’ll likely be asking not how they will accomplish this; but what in the name of Menelaus are they trying to accomplish?
The action takes place in an empty but cluttered and somewhat derelict office off Times Square, as a helpful radio announcer tells us that the New Year’s Eve ball has just dropped to usher in 1964. A somewhat derelict but unnamed Writer (Whishaw) unpacks his briefcase, removing among other things a bunch of cassette tapes, and starts to dictate notes for what seems to be a book or lecture. (“The History of War,” he calls it; at one point—describing the Greek siege of Troy, circa 1200 BC—he talks about “a thousand bloody t-shirts left on the sand.”) It is freezing cold inside and out, with snowflakes artfully dancing behind the window of Alex Eales’ set.
A somewhat matronly woman (but not really matronly, as this is the glamorous Fleming) comes in, and she might or might not be a stenographer. At times she takes dictation on her trusty stenotype machine; at other times she transcribes from cassettes while the Writer “acts” (in the larger sense of the word).
Somewhat frequently, the Stenographer sings—often disjointed phrases, or repetitions of what the writer has said. This is Renée Fleming, folks; of course she sings, they’re not going to put her up there tap dancing. (The music, such as it is, comes from Paul Clark; the words, one supposes, are by the poet/playwright.)
The Writer—or maybe professor?—speaks at great length about Helen, sometimes with Menelaus; then about Norma Jeane Baker (a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe), sometimes with someone described only as “her husband Arthur of New York and Sparta.” Although somewhat later, we’re told of Marilyn marrying Fritz Lang (who wins the Nobel Prize) and then joining the Taliban. As the two-actor play progresses, an onstage transformation presents us with Marilyn in the flesh, so to speak. (Hint: It is not Ms. Fleming who takes off her clothes onstage and slaps on the wig.)
Thus, we suddenly have a somewhat derelict Marilyn there before us; or sometimes, as the Writer tells us, “Norma Jeane as Mr. Truman Capote.” Or is it “Mr. Truman Capote as Norma Jeane”? We also get several visits from “Miss Pearl Bailey as Norma Jeane.” All of which left me itching to see Mr. Truman Capote as Miss Pearl Bailey, or vice versa, but this was apparently beyond the bounds of the author’s imagination.
Monroe, for the record, died a year and a half before the action takes place, but don’t let that stop you. Maybe she is a specter, a ghost. Or as the playwright puts it, “a cloud, a phantasm, a piece of fake news” who starts the Trojan War (circa 1200 BC). Meanwhile, they do mention a couple of times that Pearlie Mae is sitting there “eating almonds out of a Ziploc bag.” Which didn’t exist on New Year’s Eve 1963, but that Euripides was damn prescient. They (Euripides, in 1964?) also complains about “five guys fracking the fuck out of the world while it’s still legal.”
The cast does, indeed, march nobly onto the field of battle. Whishaw, who was impressive as John Proctor in the 2016 Ivo van Hove production of The Crucible (written, coincidentally, by above-mentioned “Arthur”), goes beyond the bounds of duty in a valiant attempt to bring life to Norma Jeane (to say nothing of Norma Jeane as Mr. Truman Capote). Opera star Fleming, who visited Broadway in the 2018 revival of Carousel and is en route to the London premiere of The Light in the Piazza in June, has a most curious role, singing brief patches of jabberwocky. One of them, a paean to barbarians, goes (if I’m correctly deciphering my scribbled notes) “barbarous/barbarous/bar bar bar.” This develops into a frenzied but effective musical fury and hints at what Carson and composer Clark were trying to do in this enigmatic evening, and how it might have been intended to work.
Alex Poots, the theatrical visionary who was wooed from the Manchester International Festival to the Park Avenue Armory, moved crosstown to become artistic director at The Shed. If this first commission is not quite up to snuff, it serves to suggest an adventurous artistic sensibility that—given the two stars and initial Shed crowds—might well fill the house. In any event, one expects that The Shed will become a frequent stop not only for crowds and tourists but for discerning theatergoers as well.
It was somewhat difficult to assess the venue on its crowd-thronged opening weekend. The eight-level edifice contains several performance spaces and galleries. The Griffin (which houses Norma Jeane) is configured for this presentation as a 500-seater, not dissimilar in layout to City Center Stage I, with five added rows of what you might call “pit seats.” It is far grander, with soaring airspace, open sightline,s and comfortable seating. It is also all—seats, walls, ceiling, floor—black.
Marilyn, once she is finally fully transformed, is wearing the infamous white dress from The Seven Year Itch. There is no subway grate built into the set, lest you’re wondering. But there is a handsome new subway station a short sprint from Hudson Yards, which makes The Shed as easy to get to as the Javits Center and Chelsea Piers are not.
At some point, 90 minutes in, Fleming says “exeuent omnes, singing.” And omnes the audience exuented, like quick.
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy opened April 9, 2019, at The Shed and runs through May 19. Tickets and information: theshed.org