La Vie Materielle
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
March 12, 2010
Legendary director Peter Brook's daughter, Irina Brook, is making her New York debut with this intimate production based on essays by Marguerite Duras and Virginia Woolf, directing a small ensemble that includes Nicole Ansari (from HBO's Deadwood and the Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll), Obie-award winner Winsome Brown, former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck (last seen in Julie & Julia), British folk-rock diva Sadie Jammett, and concert violin soloist Yibin Li.
All these accomplished women have gathered for a show whose "narrative" and dramatic arc are—literally—the making of a soup/stew they will sit down and eat at the end. The concept is simple: a naturalistic slice of life from women's ol' domestic universe: the kitchen. The ladies are slicing vegetables on the kitchen table, cooking the soup, folding laundry, drinking red wine, abandoning themselves to the romantic rhythms of a chansonette, dancing, singing, mimicking a strip-tease on Juliette Greco's 1967 song "Deshabillez-moi (Undress me)," while sharing Duras's and Woolf's insights on femininity and the role of women in society. Kitchenware items are used as instruments for the spontaneous karaoke-like outbursts into song and dance, underlining once again—if it wasn't already clear—that even female creativity erupts from this daily material life.
The realistic and detailed set design by Katheryn Monthei is effective and expressive, serving well the directorial concept, actually standing-out as the sixth element/character in the production.
But let's remember that Duras and Woolf were talking about women stuck in their classic roles decades and decades ago, before the three waves of feminism in western societies, before having rooms of our own, careers, babysitters, sex-and-the-city, Oprah, Facebook, avatars, Kindles, and self-help books on multitasking. Are those words still relevant? Is the kitchen still a woman's private territory and retreat? I don't think so. And actually the professional artistic ladies involved in the production prove that with their list of accomplishments.
The premise of La Vie Materielle is unfortunately deja-vu, and the lack of irony or acknowledgement of that obsolete way of dealing with women's issues added to my disappointment with the production. I expected so much more than a charming restating of some well-known out-of-date adagios on women's status.
Yes, Duras pointed out: "I repeat this. This must be repeated a lot. A woman's work, from the moment she rises till the moment she goes to bed, is as hard as a day at war..." But today, when we have women soldiers and men who are the kings and queens of kitchens excelling at domestic chores and sophisticated dishes, it is hard to take seriously the old-fashioned image of female domesticity, unless it's framed in a different socio-political context or set of circumstances that makes is relevant for us now.
Yes, the production has atmosphere and a simplicity and directness that can make the spectators feel part of the family, quiet "cousins" invited for dinner, inhabiting the same cozy space smelling of fresh and boiling vegetables. If I look at it that way, without the high bar set by a theatre landmark name like Brook, I can recommend the evening as an enjoyable celebration of the "eternal" feminine.