restricted access Sontag: Reborn, and: You, My Mother (review)
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Reviewed by
Sontag: Reborn. Based on the book by Susan Sontag and edited by David Rieff. Adapted by Moe Angelos. Directed by Marianne Weems. The Builders Association, Under the Radar Festival, The Public Theater, New York City. 9 January 2012.
You, My Mother. By Karinne Keithley Syers and Kristen Kosmas. Music by Brendan Connelly and Rick Burkhardt. Directed by Brooke O’Harra. The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, La MaMa E.T.C., New York City. 11 February 2012.

As debates about women’s reproductive rights and domestic responsibilities resurface in US politics and culture, many downtown theatre companies in New York City are making works that embody the ways in which, even years after the women’s liberation movement, the personal is still very much political. Whereas in the early 2000s, many downtown groups seemed more interested in aesthetics than politics, in recent years, several new groups have been creating overtly feminist performance and some older groups have been grappling with feminist issues in a more explicit fashion. Evidencing this shift, two established groups, the Builders Association and the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, presented new work in early 2012 that significantly departed from the companies’ usual fare. Sontag: Reborn, a masterful one-woman performance of Sontag’s early journals, and You, My Mother, a duo of poignant chamber operas exploring the relationship of adult children to their mothers, both staged archives of women’s lives, calling attention to the private, the domestic, the everyday occurrences that comprise lives extraordinary and ordinary. By demonstrating that the small and intimate details of women’s lives are worthy of examination through large and ambitious productions, and by depicting women wrestling with domestic responsibilities and career ambitions, with ideals of motherhood and its realities, both these pieces performed feminist historiography, excavations of the personal as political statement.

In past productions including Alladeen (2002), Super Vision (2005), and Continuous City (2007), the Builders Association used sophisticated onstage technology to explore grand themes like globalization, surveillance, and the digitization of society. In Sontag: Reborn, however, Austin Switser’s video design, although impressive, supported rather than overshadowed Moe Angelos’s insightful live performance, and attempts at sweeping commentary were replaced with subject matter smaller in scope. The text of the piece was adapted by Angelos from Reborn, an edited collection of Sontag’s journals and notebooks written between 1947 and 1963. Like the book, the performance traced Sontag’s life from age 15 to 30, from her parents’ home to college to Europe, through marriage and motherhood, from her reluctant acknowledgment of her “lesbian tendencies” to her fraught relationship with a woman she refers to as “H.” Directed by Marianne Weems, Angelos gave a performance that captured the youthful energy of Sontag’s words and embodied them with nuance and compassion, creating a moving and tender portrait. Sitting at a desk piled with books and situated behind a scrim at the Public Theater, Angelos as Sontag allowed the audience to witness the formation of a great mind, the self-fashioning of a woman who would become an acclaimed public intellectual. Choosing to stage the early journals rather than to focus on Sontag’s later career, the Builders Association suggested that private struggles matter as much as public success.

Instead of contributing to the piece’s overall critique, as in other Builders Association shows, the video design in Sontag: Reborn simply illustrated Sontag’s words: a projected map traced her route on her night out and an image of the writer Thomas Mann appeared when she described visiting his home. Animation technology was put to magical use when glowing text appeared across notebooks (filmed live from above) in which Sontag wrote at her desk. Projected onto the scrim at the front of the stage, the words shifted, overlapped, and scrolled, sometimes covering the entire performance area. The Newman space at the Public Theater was quite large for such an intimate performance, and the video design helped to magnify Sontag’s personal musings, bridging the distance between audience and onstage action and projecting the private into the public.

The video projections created a temporal frame for the piece. The show opened with...