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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Alice In Bed
By Elyse Sommer
It's easy to see why van Hove would be attracted to the rarely produced only play by the woman whose name is as commonly paired with the word "intellectual" as his is with "avant-garde." Sontag's allegorical contemplation of Alice James, best known as the younger sister of William (the father of modern psychiatry) and Henry (the short story writer and novelist) and is full of the sort of ideas (e.g. a talented sister of talented brothers living a reclusive existence riddled with ailments rather than accomplishments) and hallucinatory elements that are right up van Hove directorial alley -- including a take-off on the other Alice's famous tea party, and visits from Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson.
Sontag gave van Hove carte blanche to direct her play unhampered by her script and its original intent. And he's taken her at her word. The play she wrote had eight scenes with one long monologue, and called for nine actors. It is now essentially a single interior monologue.
Of the nine characters, only two are actually on stage -- Alice (Joan MacIntosh who also appears in the videos) and a young man ( Jorre Vandenbussche) who briefly gets her off the bed as if to actually live life The other seven have been vampired or deconstructed into video images floating on fluttering fabric "screens" that envelope the stage and, at times, the sides of the theater. These videotaped appearances include some fine actors as mother and dad James, brother Henry, and the assorted historical figures. However, they are so technologically tricked out that it's difficult to comment on their performances. At least Elizabeth Marvel as Margaret Fuller doesn't have to risk pneumonia by getting in and out of a bathtub as she did in the van Hove version of Streetcar Named Desire.
As for Alice's bed, oh my aching back. One can only be glad that Joan MacIntosh, who played the mother in van Hove's first NYTW production, is a trained healing therapist and thus likely to offset the pain of being tethered almost throughout to the bed van Hove and his designer Jan Versweyveld have fashioned for her. Even though this contraption has been cast to fit her body it looks like a suspended dental chair that I couldn't endure for more than five minutes without a shot of novocaine.
Ms. MacIntosh, aside from her amazing endurance for discomfort, is also the main reason to see this Alice In Bed. Her performance of this difficult part is mesmerizing. In a haze of drugs (including pain killers for the very real disease, breast cancer from which Alice James died — an affliction Sontag knows first-hand and has eloquently written about in Illness As Metaphor)— Alice sleeps (occasionally even snores loudly), argues, pleads, whimpers and sings. Her body language also has you in thrall. Her twisting and turning, her pleading with her father for permission to commit suicide conveys the sense of a life of immobility in with only the mind is alive (as evident from her remarks about Margaret Fuller's travels to Italy -- "I can travel with my mind").
The set is a three-dimensional Miro affair with mirrors, with an artificial leg (James senior was an amputee), and other oddments dangling from strings. This, plus the floating video images and the virtuoso acting of Ms. MacIntosh reel you in.
But before long, you want out of Alice's nightmare world and instead of being drawn to the play or the players, you find yourself wondering if Mr. van Hove's version of Ms. Sontag's play is a case of the emperor without clothes. All the technological bells and whistles seem to have done little except to make a play that's difficult to begin with more obtuse and as unendurably endless as a nightmare.
After the young man, a burglar, enters and MacIntosh's mad babbling and dancing about comes to a merciful end there is one brief glimpse of what this play might be: Alice returns to the isolation of her life in bed. Even if she could face the "out there" that's "so big" it would be too late since she is now in the deadly grip of a real as well as imagined illness.
Would I recommend Alice In Bed? Mr. van Hove's work is a form of performance art and could in this case as easily (or better) work as an installation with a live component (the actress in her bed) at P. S. 1 or the Whitney. I thought More Stately Mansions a better showcase of his talent and originality. On the other hand, that production was three and a half hours long -- this one lasts just eighty-five minutes.
More Stately Mansions
A Streetcar Named Desire