Legendary director Peter Brook has always investigated the big questions. In recent years his productions have become more intimate and the questions bigger. In Why?, written and directed by Brook and his collaborator of four decades, Marie-Hélène Estienne, the performance takes place on a nearly empty stage and uses only three actors to tell its story. While the evening is mesmerizing, the play seems unfocused, beginning with the question why do we do theater and ending with the political dangers to theater artists who create experimental theater.
The three actors (Hayley Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni, long associates of the directors) alternate in telling Brook and Estienne’s tale. Opening with a charming fable about the origins of theater, they ask the question: why we do theater? This leads to innovative British director and scenic designer Gordon Craig asking himself at the turn of the last century, “Why and how to do theater? How could the theater be more alive, more open to all?”
Next in chronological order is the Russian director and teacher Stanislavski who develops methods for actors to get in touch with their emotions. His own student, Meyerhold began to develop a theory in opposition to the naturalism of his teacher: the use of movement, exercises he called biomecanics. When the October Revolution began in Russia, Meyerhold thought that his compatriots would be ready for his new theater in which he eliminated the curtain and the proscenium arch.
Marcello Magni in Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s “Why?” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center at Theater for a New Audience (Simon Annand)
Using classic texts like Gogol’s The Revizor (The Inspector General in English) and Ostrovsky’s The Forest, and new satiric, Soviet plays like Maiakowski’s The Baths and The Bedbug, and Erdman’s The Mandate in productions which often starred his wife Zinaïda Raïkh, Meyerhold demonstrated his new approach. Unfortunately, despite his success, Meyerhold’s proposed production of Erman’s The Suicide so incensed Stalin that it led to the tragic demise of the director, his wife and this cutting-edge playwright. Brook and Estienne end up asking the question “What truth lies behind this?” We have come very far from the initial question of why we make theater. The message appears to be that during a revolution, exponents of political or satiric theater put their lives in danger. Quoting one of Meyerhold’s sayings in the 1920’s, “Theater is a dangerous weapon.”
Using the minimum of artifice, Carmichael, Hunter and Magni recount this history while stopping at times to demonstrate the styles being described. Hunter’s use of arm movement during a speech proves how theatrical they can be, while Magni shows us while running how an entire story can be built from this action. Aside from the history of the theatrical innovators at the beginning of 20th century, the cast brilliantly delivers letters between Meyerhold and his wife Zinaïda which not only sum up their relationship, but also highlight their tragic fate. Occasionally, there is light audience participation which only works to tie us closer to the tale unfolding. This is all backed by lovely piano music performed live by Laurie Blundell seated off to stage left.
Hayley Carmichael and Kathryn Hunter in Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s “Why?” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center at Theater for a New Audience (Photo credit: Pascal Gely)
The uncredited design is what we have come to expect from the man who wrote the seminal text, The Empty Space. Dressed all in black, the actors could well be mimes preparing for their performance. Aside from the chairs, the rug and the empty coat racks used as doors, the stage is backed by a screen that periodically reveals photos of Meyerhold or words that sear into our imaginations. The subtle lighting by Philippe Vialatte never distracts from the story being told.
Why?, the sixth work by Brook or Brook and Estienne to be given its American premiere by Theatre for a New Audience, is performance art taken to its most basic and minimalistic form: an almost empty stage, three actors and a tale to be told. While there are some theatergoers who will miss the pomp and circumstance of commercial theater, Why? is one of those works that will stay with you and get under your skin.
Why? (through October 6, 2019)
C.I.T.C./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Theatre for a New Audience
Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission