Moe Angelos, member of the influential ensemble the Five Lesbian Brothers, stars as Susan Sontag in a one-woman play about the writer's fifteen formative years from going to college at age 16 to the publication of her breakthrough work Notes on Camp in 1964. This theatrical work has evolved, both from earlier development at The Public Theater and New York Theatre Workshop, and from the insight provided by the posthumous publication of Sontag's journals--edited by her son David Rieff--in 2008 and 2010. Moe Angelos adds another layer to the performance by appearing on the video screen as an older Susan Sontag, critical of her younger self's critical work. A constant stream of images from Sontag's life and times, plus her own writings, appears courtesy of video designer Austin Switser. This greatly helps keep the story on track and points to an evolution of Sontag's attitudes and crystallization of her nascent sexuality into the basis of her literary career.
Sontag escapes from her unfulfilling childhood in Sherman Oaks, California thanks to intensive reading of authors such as André Gide. (This reviewer sees Gide as the uncloseted version of Stendhal, a new standard-bearer for plotless self-indulgence, all of which would inform Sontag's writing.) At age 16, Sontag is off to U.C. Berkeley, where she glories in Marlene Dietrich films and courts men's suit-wearing women in bars. Then she quickly qualifies as exempt from Undergraduate studies and moves on to the University of Chicago. She is full of hope, yet believes that she must suppress her lesbian tendencies. She plots out her wedding to Philip Rieff, which, also as predicted, becomes stultifying. After living as a married woman and attending Radcliffe, she gives birth to a son, then scraps the marriage and sails for Oxford, a place where she can write--somewhat sardonically-about metaphysics.
The journal entries are sometimes painfully private but also indicate they are meant to be shared. After transferring from Oxford to the Sorbonne, Sontag reads her Parisian girlfriend's diary to find out how she is perceived. There are many charming observations about French bohemia (essentially, it's not as Jewish as the Greenwich Village version) as well as cultural commentary from Sontag's then-partner, playwright María Irene Fornés. How is it possible that the play Waiting For Godot can change your life even if you don't understand French? It just is. In the early 1960s, Sontag is back in New York, overextending herself with uppers, embracing the sexual ambiguity of films such as Flaming Creatures and trying to process mod culture. From there, it's a rational step to the further ambiguities of Notes on Camp.
There is a lot going on in this piece. Most of it is quite inspirational. Sontag achieved much, all without a hint of discrimination based on sexual orientation, or any mention of her husband expecting her to be a housewife. That is a little too clean for me, but whether or not the journals elaborate on these concerns, the show is already too dense to permit such digressions. Similarly, while the interplay between the younger and older Sontag can be hypnotic, it runs the risk of distracting from the story. Without the video screen flashing references to all the books and authors, it might be hard to go in 80 minutes where Sontag went in 15 years. For all this, director Marianne Weems and The Builders Association are to be commended for bringing to us the story of the genius as a product of good old dependable American culture. Laura Mroczkowski's lighting increases the joys of loneliness, while Andreea Mincic's costumes greatly help elucidate the passage of time.