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The Valley of Astonishment
By Jacob Horn
What Sacks does in his writing, Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne have previously done in their play The Man Who. Now, to kick off the new season at Theatre for a New Audience, the writing/directing team present a continuation of their "adventure into the labyrinths of the mind," in the US premiere of The Valley of Astonishment.
Whereas The Man Who cast a wide net, telling a variety of stories of people with different afflictions, The Valley of Astonishment takes a more focused look at the phenomenon of synesthesia, a notoriously difficult-to-define condition where senses are blurred such that a stimulus for one might trigger a totally separate one. The play's main character, Samy Costas (one of several characters played by Kathryn Hunter), experiences the world in a manner markedly different from anyone else. Someone's speech might produce a strong sense of color—in one instance, a character speaks "unattractive yellow"—while a simple word such as "egg" might call to mind an entire geographic location.
We follow Samy most of the way through the show, but Brook and Estienne's play isn't quite a linear narrative. In addition to playing supporting roles in Samy's story, Hunter's fellow performers Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill take on other characters as well, illuminating—if only briefly—the range of experience that can still be captured under the same broad term of "synesthesia." Nor is the play itself consistently a narrative at all. Lines from the Persian poem "The Conference of the Birds" help to frame the play, and music is an essential element throughout.
Music is typically the subject of a performance or subordinated to other material as accompaniment. There are moments of each here, which isn't uncommon for a play. But given the play's content, there's significance to this use of music. In a mindset where words can be musical, music can too carry linguistic meaning. I don't think it gives anything away to say that the play ends with music, rather than speech, and these final bars seem deeply substantial. Instrumentalists Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori never exist fully inside or outside of the narrative; when Chambouvet enters into a scene early in the play, it feels somewhat jarring, but such feelings disappear by the end.
In fact, it seems like synesthesia may just be the ultimate leveling theatrical construct. In Samy and the play's other characters, we see how speech, music, sound, light, color, and space are all capable of communicating, or can all produce similar reactions from the right person. Philippe Vialatte's careful lighting design starts to help us understand, even if only ever so slightly, what different perceptions might look like; it proves an invaluable aid to the poetic and richly descriptive language used by Brook and Estienne.
This is not to minimize the major role that the performers play in creating this "kaleidoscopic journey," as the Theatre labels it. Hunter blends seamlessly into her primary role in a portrayal that is empathetic and genuine. Magni and McNeill also play synesthetes with a compelling blend of conviction and fascination. Magni has the additional distinction of salvaging a somewhat frustrating audience participation bit with his appealing showmanship.
Meanwhile, each performer also has a turn playing a medical professional, and while these characters sometimes feel like they're speaking in clichéd doctor-isms, these contrasting roles illuminate the breadth of the actors.
Holistically, The Valley of Astonishment offers a rich experience for nearly all the senses (taste is covered by the Polonsky Shakespeare Center's newly opened cafe, aptly christened Food and Drink). With the powerful Hunter at the helm of the cast, Brook and Estienne have crafted a play that is as educational as it is poetic and that strikes an even balance between accessibility and avante-gardism. The show evinces the creators' strong interest in the subject, and it's easy to emerge from The Valley with as much Astonishment as is clearly felt by its makers.