Death of a Salesman
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
October 23, 2008
Interested in a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman where the character Happy Loman is performed by a punching bag moved by a Bunraku-style puppeteer? It may sound strange, but you must go see this show to see how brilliantly the choice to have Happy and every character outside of the Loman family portrayed by an object— as well as the many other innovative choices in this production—brings the play to new light. Although initially jarring, eventually I stopped noticing the oddity of objects accompanied by voiceover and became engrossed in this visceral, epic version of the famous play. Theatricality like this requires true bravery and a great deal of intelligence to be done effectively. It is evident from, for example, how intently I watched the movements of a refrigerator door as it conversed with a live actor, that Theater Mitu possesses these traits to the utmost.
The direction, acting, music, design, and technical components of this play are all nothing short of marvelous. Director Rubén Polendo has put together a grand, beautiful, and powerfully moving production.
I do not intend, by first mentioning the surprising choice to have objects as characters, to understate the fantastic performances by Justin Nestor as Willy Loman, Emily Davis as Linda Loman, and Dylan Dawson as Biff. They lug objects around with them instead: Willy an open briefcase, Linda an umbrella, and Biff his football shoulder pads. Nestor and Davis don wrinkled masks through which they bring out their far older characters with staggering depth and vibrancy. Nestor embodies Willy Loman in a way I would otherwise assume impossible for a young man. Nestor's physical clarity paired with his emotional depth as he portrays Willy Loman bubbling over the brim with exaggerated personality, sinking into suicidal despair, raging at his family, and frantically trying to hold onto his dying sense of self, is beautifully heartbreaking. In Linda's final speech, I watched the wrinkled mask literally blend into and become Davis's face; the ultimate image of sadness. This is a credit to the mask design by Lori Petermann as well as Davis's incredible performance.
During flashbacks, Nestor and Davis remove their masks and become elated caricatures of young parents, Biff is represented by his football shoulder pads, and the Happy puppeteer removes his mask and carries the punching bag on his back while jogging in place. The stage turns red and the music switches to upbeat for these flashbacks, as opposed to the pale white backdrop and thundering atonal cacophony that accompany other scenes. The stark and stunning set is designed by Kate Ashton, Leighton Mitchell, and Polendo. The original music written by Ellen Reid is performed with an unrelenting sense of doom by a five-instrument band. Willy Loman often breaks into song along with this music for his speeches, unsuccessfully searching for a melody amidst the discord.
The voice and puppeteer for Happy Loman, Nathan Elam, remains funny and interesting while he assuredly hits the same spunky note with every line. The intelligence of having this character repeat the same detached enthusiastic vocal patterns while his family sinks into despair is quite apparent from its implementation. Also, the fact that the punching bag quickly becomes an acceptable character is a credit to Elam's puppetry. Nikki Calonge is the puppeteer for the other characters, and her ability to give distinctive energy to the wide variety of objects she utilizes, ranging from fans to florescent lights, is certainly one of the reasons why this device is so effective.
Repetitious gesture is also used quite successfully. For example, Willy pulls at his skin and then Linda removes his hand over and over throughout a section of dialogue, or Willy readjusts his clothing in the same grooming pattern incessantly. There are further strong conventions such as a mocking jiggling rubber gas hose (which Willy tried to use to kill himself) that appears in the still hand of the puppeteer whenever mentioned, providing the perfect parallel presence on stage to what's in the minds of the Loman family. During the transition out of a flashback, Willy undergoes a slow motion fall across and off of the chair at the center of the stage. There is a clear physical story, coupled with a well coordinated emotional descent, created by an inspired collaborative team.
This play is especially relevant given the current economic situation and nobody with a taste for the epic and imaginative should miss Theater Mitu's Death of a Salesman.