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A CurtainUp Review
Death of a Salesman
The globe-trotting Theater Mitu has brought Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to Brooklyn, where that 1949 Pulitzer Prize drama takes place and where the playwright lived while writing it. As Linda Loman says in Miller's script, "Attention must be paid."
Mitu was founded two decades ago by artistic director Ruben Polendo, now chair of the undergraduate theater program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and director of the current production. This ambitious troupe is the permanent professional repertory company of New York University's Abu Dhabi campus— but its productions have traveled to far-flung destinations including Chile, Egypt, Lebanon, Mexico, Mongolia, and Poland.
Death of a Salesman depicts the disordered mind of protagonist Willy Loman (Justin Nestor), long-time drummer for a line of merchandise unspecified in Miller's script. Age is catching up with Willy; and his dwindling energy means fewer sales calls and diminished commissions. Ashamed that his income falls short of household expenses, Willy has been borrowing money from next door neighbor Charley, pretending to his wife Linda (Kayla Asbell) that the loans are wages.
Miller's script covers the last hours of Willy's life as he puzzles over his fractured relationship with his sons Biff (Corey Sullivan) and Happy (Denis Butkus). Though confronted with favorite son Biff's failures and indiscretions, Willy holds fast to his pipe dreams. Biff's "been doing very big things in the West," Willy tells one person; and both boys are "working on a very big deal," he tells another.
Willy has tried to kill himself before; and now, feeling that things are hopeless, he finds suicide the only imaginable relief from despair and economic travail. "Funny, y'know," Willy remarks to Charley. "After all the highways, and the trains and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive." Charley's response is incomprehensible to Willy in his addled state: " . . . nobody's worth nothin' dead."
A program note for this production describes Mitu's mission as "expanding the definition of theater through methodical experimentation with its form." The Mitu artists promote a theory of "whole theater," which includes study of "trans-global performance" and use of techniques from the theatrical traditions of various cultures.
Polendo has cast Death of a Salesman with four actors: Nestor, Asbell, Sullivan, and Butkus — and two puppeteers, Atillio Ricotti and Xiao Quan. The performers move around an abstract space designed by Polendo and Kate Ashton (aided by "scenic collaborator" Leighton Mitchell), with floor and back wall neutral in color to serve as a screen for shadow play and lighting that comment on and reflect the mood of each scene.
The Mitu Salesman is informed by traditional Asian theater. Much of the actors' movement is ritualized and often it's balletic. With some passages of text set to music that falls somewhere between aria and recitative, the production is intermittently operatic. The versatile Ada Westfall, visible in a stage-left balcony, performs the original score (composed by Eileen Reid "in collaboration with" Westfall) on keyboards, percussion, and other instruments.
The supporting roles — those outside the Loman family — are represented by homely objects (electric fans, a refrigerator door, fluorescent tubes), which are manipulated by the puppeteers and symbolize something essential about the applicable character and his or her relationship to Willy. The lines that Miller assigned to those roles are intoned by superb actors whose recorded voices come much magnified over the theater's sound system.
The effect of Mitu's Salesman, like that of Ivo van Hove's recent productions of The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, is far removed from what we customarily associate with Miller. The contrast is at its most acute in Act Two, when Sullivan renders his part of the obligatory showdown between Biff and Willy with an unmannered naturalism at odds with the rest of the production. In this scene, Sullivan plays Biff in a style that would fit into a traditional production of the play.
Biff is the member of the Loman clan who sees things clearly: "We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house," he laments. "I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you; you never were anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ashcan like all the rest of them! I'm not bringing home any prizes any more and you're going to stop waiting for me to bring them home."
Biff's farewell speech and the simplicity with which Sullivan performs it are all the more powerful for being set against Mitu's anti-realistic staging, with Polendo's fanciful direction, the stylized performances of Sullivan's fellow actors, and the constantly changing colors of Kate Ashton's lighting design. Nothing in this two and a half hour production is as effective or emotionally involving as Sullivan's confrontation with Nestor's Willy in their final scene together. The tragedy of the play is that Willy, mired in illusion and disillusion, cannot accept what he's hearing from his son.
At a moment when the representatives of Edward Albee's estate have withheld performance rights for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf from an Oregon theater to thwart proposed non-traditional casting, it's gratifying that Miller's heirs are giving us the chance to have a fresh, unconventional look at Death of a Salesman. Mitu's production is for the most adventurous theater-goers and for serious students of contemporary drama. Those audiences will agree: Attention must be paid.
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Death of a Salesman
By Arthur Miller
Director: Ruben Polendo
Original Performance Style and Approached Developed With and By: Nikki Calonge, Emily Davis, Dylan Dawson, Nathan Elam, Justin Nestor
Cast: Kayla Asbell (Linda Loman); Denis Butkus (Happy Loman); Justin Nestor (Willy Loman); Xiao Quan (Assistant Puppeteer); Atillio Ricotti (Puppeteer); Corey Sullivan (Biff Loman); Additional voices: Nathan Baesel, Jenni-Lynn Brick, Aysan Celik, Jenny Donoghue, Ben Fox, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jason Lew, Mark D. Schultz, Ryan West, Ada Westfall
Set Designers: Ruben Polendo & Kate Ashton
Scenic Collaborator: Leighton Mitchell
Costume Designer: Candida K. Nichols
Lighting Designer: Kate Ashton
Sound Designer/Production Manager: Alex Hawthorn
Object Designer: Scott Spahr
Object Design Collaborator: Sanaz Ghajar
Mask Designer: Lori Petermann
Dramaturg: Chris Mills
Producer: Jimmy Walden
Production Supervisor: Lizzy Lee
Running Time: Two hours 35 minutes, with one intermission
Presented by Theatre Mitu
Brookly Academy of Music's BAM Fisher,Ashland Place
From 7/16/17; closing 7/24/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at the July 16th performance
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