A somber music-theater piece, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy premiered on Tuesday as one among the inaugural attractions for The Shed, the new $475 million performing arts center situated in the Hudson Yards complex. Although much of the publicity regarding The Shed centers upon its striking indoor-outdoor space driven by a retractable shell upon wheels, this is not where Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is being played.
At the other end of the building, zig-zagging escalators take patrons from a surprisingly modest lobby to the sixth floor’s Griffin Theater. This expansive black box space has been configured with flexible risers and 500 seats into a proscenium format for Norma Jeane Baker of Troy.
Specially commissioned by The Shed from Canadian poet Anne Carson and British composer Paul Clark, the 90-minute work is a dramatic monologue merged with electronic music. Termed a “melologue,” it is crafted to be interpreted by two performers: Ben Whishaw, last seen here as John Proctor in The Crucible, and Renée Fleming, a darling of the opera world who lately has been gracing Broadway.
Expect to experience a gloomy and unrewarding chamber opera. Carson’s text busily merges the rather tired 20th century icon of Marilyn Monroe with the equally overdone mythic figure of Helen of Troy as legendary yet innocent beauties who get a raw deal from posterity that dismisses them as ruinous sirens.
Clark’s electronic score is a soundtrack consisting of pre-recordings of Fleming singing clusters of notes which he then digitally processed into varying forms of sound that range from street noises to droning musical passages.
The scenario transpires in an unoccupied office near Times Square on a snowy New Year’s Eve as the years click over from 1963 into 1964. The two characters here are not identified in the program, so let’s use the actors’ names to describe these relatively static doings. Dressed in period business attire, Whishaw walks into the shadowy office and begins rapidly dictating into a recording device a treatise regarding Norma Jeane Baker, the Trojan War, box office poison, “good husband Arthur, king of Sparta and New York,” and other topical mash-ups of the Marilyn-Helen sagas.
As the text progresses, references are made to Truman Capote, Homer, Pearl Bailey, Priam, and Yves Montand, among other ancient and modern luminaries. (Did I hear Jack the Ripper’s name pop up?)
Whishaw annotates this curious litany by injecting frequent instructions regarding line spacing, brackets, and other types of punctuation.
Eventually Fleming enters, garbed as a dowdy secretary. She starts taking Whishaw’s dictation on a stenotype machine. As the piece progresses, the mostly silent Fleming occasionally interjects some creamy-sounding musical echoes of Whishaw’s monologue.
Meanwhile, as Whishaw mutters away in unaccented yet intense tones, he gradually strips down to his skivvies, applies cosmetics to his face, and begins dressing in 1950s-era women’s undergarments. Eventually, Whishaw rigs himself out in Monroe’s white halter frock from The Seven Year Itch and is swilling pills and champagne.
What’s it all mean? You tell me: I couldn’t figure it out. Carson’s text offers dense content that’s probably better read than heard aloud. Clark’s buzzing soundscape scarcely seems like music at all. Even as Whishaw gets into drag and Fleming picks away at the keyboard, the rushing words and shivery sounds around them merge into an aural blur that’s difficult to comprehend, let alone appreciate or enjoy.
Some spectators gave up trying to grasp it; there were numerous walk-outs during the show.
Under the direction of Katie Mitchell, a notable opera/theater director from abroad, the performances by Whishaw and Fleming can best be described as valiant.
Theatergoers who go in for extremely experimental musical projects might want to check out Norma Jeane Baker of Troy. Folks with conventional tastes are advised to steer clear of The Shed until it programs something a bit friendlier.