I believe that good art creates conversation. If you leave a movie, a play, a poetry reading and are pushed to discuss your feelings, revelations etc., then art has been useful and I think that is the utmost purpose. Sometimes it entertains, sometimes it amuses, but it always needs to substantiate a part of the collective of humanity. And in that, force us to take a good hard look at ourselves.
This piece, “Life or Theater?” is a strange, avant-garde production that chronicles the life of Charlotte Salomon. Never heard of her? You are not alone, but after this review, and seeing this performance, you too will end with her in your google search. The play may have posed more questions than answers and prompted me to come home and feverishly google any information I could find on this woman. And damn if I didn’t spend hours down the internet rabbit hole clicking on more, and more, and more. There was not enough to satiate my appetite.
The play is meant to depict the life of Charlotte Salomon from the perspective of the inner workings of her mind. She succumbed to many of the issues prevalent in her family history- from mental illness to suicide. The play itself is a piece of performance art with small vignettes overlaid with interpretive dance and projections of her artwork. There is also the infusion of poetry, German musings, and music. Charlotte created a tableau called Life or Theater? (hence the title) and it was originally 1200 paintings edited down to 800 “then overlaid with narratives, character entrances, musical cues, and multi-panel action.” Apparently this project went on display for the first time just a few decades ago.
The synopsis begins with Charlotte and her image of self arguing over her state of affairs. It incorporates her mother and grandmother because so much of the illness is perpetrated by the women in her family. As the play progresses, her mother dies tragically, her father remarries, her father is taken to a concentration camp, and Charlotte is sent to France to stay with her grandfather. IRL Charlotte killed her grandfather amid allegations of sexual abuse (not in the play- just in my fascinating research). And she was ultimately taken to Auschwitz and executed. Her art was left in the safe-keeping of a friend. Again, the play ends with her recanting “don’t let me go mad,” but there is so much more to her tale!
We have to start by heralding the most technical part of this show- the lighting and projections. Lighting designer Evan Moritz, Video Designer Rachel Dwiggins, and Projections Tech David Crandall have earned their gold stars. The rich texture that is created from the lighting reflects the mood of Charlotte’s moment, and is then is infused with the imagery of her art and video footage of the era and Nazi occupation. It has the desired effect on the audience, it makes you feel claustrophobic, the sense of imminent doom closing in around you, just as Charlotte’s world came crashing down around her. The blues, the yellows, the sinister shadows- seriously, I can’t stress enough how gorgeously conceived this was. I have not seen a show in a long time as visually stunning as this.
And while we are on visually stunning- the costumes by Susan MacCorkle are stupendous as well. Era appropriate but with air brushed shadows to give them an almost comic book effect, was genius. It was as if panels from her diary and art sprang to life and were preforming before your very eyes. Set Designer Reese Siedlecki was tasked with creating something that can tell the story but also allow those images to be seen clearly. Her dappled painting almost looks like there are secret messages hidden within, I tried to decode them pre-show but failed and gave up. Post show I became more convinced there was something in there- or the paranoia took hold as it was intended to.
Charlotte herself is depicted by Caroline Preziosi. Her hair, costume, and facial features resemble the self portraits of Charlotte I found online. Most excellent casting and costuming. She is both young and an old-soul. She is both captivating and mundane. In other words, she exemplifies all the things people said about Charlotte and brings them to life with the sweep of her skirt. Her most majestical moment is an insinuation of an affair with her mother’s vocal teacher- Daberlohn, played by Jacob Zabawa. She and he seem to be on a picnic, with the sun shining and not a care in the world. Solomon apparently painted his face nearly 3,000 times. In this rendition, Preziosi stares at him with adoration and longing as he looks past her at her mother. The moment is particularly tender and shows her vulnerability as a young woman, not as a hounded Jew in hostile territory.
Kerry Brady does double-duty as her mother, prior to her demise, and then as her songbird step-mother. As if the play couldn’t be any more odd and ethereal, when Brady opens her mouth to sing as Paulinska, she holds an O while songs are piped in from the speakers. Brady does a superb job honing in on Paulinka’s furtive side glances that give away her plotting and her undoing. She is coupled with Katherine Vary as the grandmother. Her role is a bit more emotionally raw as she tries to comfort Charlotte, and cannot. Vary does an excellent job of the aloof nature of mothering when the future is so very uncertain. Kevin Griffin Moreno embodies the grandfather along with Prof. Kahn. One of his shining moments is when he analyzes Charlotte with detached clinical assault (it does simulate a gun with its staccato pacing- absolutely brilliant) while she sits and reals from the overload of information and stimulus. Jacob Zabawa is the love interest among other characters and floats in and out of Charlotte’s frames almost like a tall lanky ghost. Charlotte painted him often in dark shadows, so if he was going for creepy and disjointed- he nailed it! Susasree Das plays the “first Charlotte” or what I interpreted to be the first time her mind branched off and betrayed her with sinister thoughts. She also comes on stage to spew propaganda of the German people during the Nazi rise to power and it is chilling to watch her scream with her fist raised.
Carly Bales has devised a piece that accurately assays the original gouaches. Her style and story are so close to the essence of Charlotte is sometimes hard to determine where Charlotte the historical figure begins and where the actors and devised piece are imitating. This is a seamless transportation into the mind of a madman, or a genius. You decide.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? You would be a fool to miss this! This is the most engaging, provocative piece of performance art I have seen in some time. It moved me to do hours of research and to ask a million questions about art, life, depression, abuse, and more. This provoked a great sense of disquietude in me, and forced me to ask myself at what point does my life divide from my work? Life, or theater? Or are they inexplicably and eternally intertwined. Stunning and achingly beautiful, timely, relevant, poignant and poetic- this production will haunt your soul for days. (I)
Running at the Annex Theater through June 17th. About an hour with no intermission.