This Place Is A Desert
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
January 11, 2008
The Under the Radar Festival manages to create a special atmosphere at The Public Theatre, a buzz that's shared by theatre-goers and industry people, all excited to see what's "new and hot" in the contemporary performance arena.
One of the must-see shows on the "menu," This Place Is A Desert is a fascinating new piece conceived and directed by Jay Scheib (in collaboration with media designer Leah Gelpe), and produced by Shoshana Polanco, which proves once again that Scheib is one of the creators of a new theatre d'auteur. His shows have a distinctive stylistic mark, an aesthetic that combines a conceptual exploration with a high-tech multimedia universe that allows the audience to see simultaneous fragmented actions.
Inspired by the works of the Italian filmmaker Antonioni—who explored a similar world of emotional alienation in his films L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L'Eclisse (1962), creating an exciting non-narrative, psychological cinema that made him famous—Scheib is similarly obsessed with a modern world of loneliness and despair, where people cling onto each other in violent sexual encounters in the hope of finding themselves in the process. Of course it never happens and a frustration leads to a new frustration, and a depression to a new one. Antonioni's somewhat political concern of examining the barren eroticism of the bourgeoisie and implicitly criticizing its lack of meaningful values, becomes for Scheib a stylized reality of random love affairs and betrayals in an alienated society where people are desperate to connect, masochistically throwing themselves into identity crises solved temporarily through sexual passion.
The ensemble of performers is diverse and exceptional, fully committed to the director's vision. Extremely powerful actresses such as April Sweeney and Sarita Choudhury keep the audience with their eyes glued to their movement, be it live or on screen. The beautiful costumes created by Oana Botez-Ban contribute largely to the sensuality that the performers share, bringing a palpable sense of carnality on stage.
Scheib's aesthetic relies on the various angles through which we can see the scenes, always a fragmented reality that never reveals itself fully. We can see faces in mirrors, bodies moving on the screen, entangled arms and legs, sneaky eyes sliding in a corner of an image, a few rooms where people interact more or less violently, always with some erotic anticipation or sexual desire that burns hearts and destroys relationships. Still—in an alienated universe where people are islands, a burning heart is a sure sign that one is still alive, a violent sexual encounter is a proof that one exists.
And Jay Scheib and his ensemble are a sure proof that a powerful performance brings onstage a vibrant space of conflict and passion, that theatre and film can feed each other and create together a brilliant cocktail of human emotions, going way beyond words and stories.