Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Valley of Astonishment

In Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's charming new piece, The Valley of Astonishment, the titular valley is that uncharted, elusive area where brain metamorphoses into mind and the unexpected can occur: perfect memory, hearing colors, only being able to move one's body parts while looking at them. A theatricalization of, and riff on, the findings of such scientists as Oliver Sacks (well-know for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other books about neurological anomalies), The Valley of Astonishment is in some ways like the coolest Ted Talk ever, with skits.
Jared McNeill, Kathryn HunterPhoto: Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

The main-ish character is Samy Costas, an unassuming journalist who doesn't understand how astonishing her mind is until her editor sends her to, well, have her head examined. Samy remembers everything. Everything. Her brain is a compulsive producer of mnemonics, constantly churning out pictures and associations and locating them in a mental map of her neighborhood that she can "visit" whenever she wants to access her memory. But when she becomes a nightclub performer, astonishing people with her mental talents, she comes up against an unexpected question--can her brain become full? And then what?

Samy is played by the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter, and every time she is off stage, you really, really wish she would come back. The other two performers, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill, playing various researchers, artists, and a one-handed magician, are also wonderful, and their scenes are entertaining, but it is Samy's story that most engages the heart and mind of the audience (at least this audience).

The problem with Valley of Astonishment is that much of it is old news to people who have read Oliver Sacks' books and who keep up with the ever-fascinating study of neurology and the brain. The show is elegant and often funny; the musicians Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori provide a soundscape of great beauty; and the poetry from the the Persian poem "The Conference of the Birds" is beautiful and evocative, but ultimately The Valley of Astonishment is slight. I had a good time, but if I had paid $50 to $100, I suspect that my predominant response would have been annoyance.

(balcony to the extreme side, press ticket)

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