Lear deBessonet's transFigures isn't just a passionate play, it's a play about passion, from the psychological Jerusalem Syndrome to the allegorical Ibsen, to plain human behavior. Excellent production values triumph in this remarkable tapestry of ideas, and this should be on everyone's list for April.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
transFigures fades in with a series of bodies, their genders indecipherable at first beneath their white robes, lying in front of two metal towers and three paper-thin Chinese walls. As music filters through the theater, a purposeful type of ambient electronica, the bodies come alive with an inexplicable passion: they move, they shudder, they roll across one another, they live. When it is over, they rest again, just as inexplicably, on the stage as the lights come down. Rest easy, dear reader, this is just the curtain-raiser for another stunning theatrical work by Lear deBessonet (see Bone Portraits), a prologue to a seamless collage of texts and ideas revolving around (but in no way limited to) the exploration of Jerusalem Syndrome.
The center of the play follows Bill (David Adkins) and Susan (Marguerite Stimpson) from their New York office (complete with a God-crazy secretary played with unnerving accuracy by Juliana Francis) to Jerusalem. At the same time, two subplots (lacing exquisitely in and out of this main story) focus on neuroscientist Gene's study of Joshua, a young boy who is afflicted with hyperreligiosity and a series of theatrically thrilling delusions, as well as on an Israeli therapist's engaging explanation of the syndrome. (A psychosis of passion overcomes the afflicted, and results in them delivering a confused sermon in a holy place.)
Rather than narrowing the focus after establishing the necessary technical background, deBessonet widens the scope, abetted by her textual patchwork: the show is written primarily by Bathsheba Doran, but involves text from Chuck Mee, Erin Sax Seymour, and Russell Shorto, to name a few. If she is trying to deliberately trick our brain's OAA (Orientation Association Area), to make us forget, as with Jerusalem Syndrome, where we are: she succeeds. Mark Huang's ambient sound design sets the mood, Andrea Haenggi's choreography breaks down the delusion (shambled, joyous, confused, and satisfied masses), Jenny Sawyer's multileveled set (reaching along the sides into the audience and up steel towers to the sky) breaks into multiple dimensions, Ryan Mueller's lighting (or darknessing) evokes the phantasmal, surreal, and modern with a profoundly succinct grace, and we? We are transported.
We are also astonished by the range and fluidity of deBessonet's direction. With the slightest sweeps of lighting and the rare use of props (always malleable items, like string, or paper), she is able to evoke not just the awe-inspiring, but the awful, and often at the same time. Those paper-thin walls are just as easily wailing walls, being spun around the theater by the cast, as they are the Wailing Wall. At the same time, she can bounce from idea to idea, without ever seeming fragmented, which is largely a credit to her malleable cast. For instance, her summarized spoof of Henrik Ibsen's Young Girl and the Sea is one of the most shamelessly embarrassing feats of ham on the stage, and it flows just a few minutes later into a cross-section between testimony of the abortionist-killing hairdresser, John Salvi (T. Ryder Smith is flawless here) and everyone's favorite God-hearing martyr, Joan of Arc. Although the texts are very different in tone, once deBessonet weaves something into her tapestry, you can't imagine ever hearing them apart again. It's just one more wonderfully indelible effect of the play.
It had better NOT be snowing in Bakersfield: if transFigures is what its like to lose one's mind, or to be touched by God, then we should all be so lucky, for this is a beautiful, beautiful play.
Julia Miles Theatre (424 West 55th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $42.00
Performances (through 5/6): Mon., Thurs., Fri. @ 8 | Sat. & Sun. @ 3 | Sat. @ 9
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.