Anne Carson’s Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a “Melologue”

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The Shed presents NORMA JEAN BAKER OF TROY. A World Premiere Shed Commission. Written by Anne Carson, Directed by Katie Mitchell, Score by Paul Clark, Starring Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming April 6–May 19, 2019 Photo Stephanie Berger.

Melologue Gone Mad

Conflating the myth of Helen of Troy with the story of Norma Jeane Baker, aka Marilyn Monroe, is a terrific idea. Both women were revered for their beauty and lusted after by men far and wide; despite, or probably because of these characteristics, neither enjoyed a very happy life. 

Elements of both stories come together, first slowly and then faster in this spoken and sung presentation—per author Anne Carson, a “melologue.” It’s New Year’s Eve 1963 as Ben Wishaw furtively enters a cold office and unpacks materials of his trade—those of a journalist or playwright. He is joined by Renée Fleming, a secretary, who begins typing as Wishaw dictates indicating every period and comma. Wishaw pins up photos and articles on a bulletin board just out of eyeshot and plays tapes, some of which begin “History of War.” 

His work centers on Norma Jeane whose story is (sort of) integrated with Helen’s, to whom he refers as “a cloud” which Fleming echoes in song. (In Greek mythology, the cloud envelops Paris whose selection of Helen starts the Trojan War but never mind.) As the performance continues, Wishaw, skinny as a string bean, disrobes. He gets down to his undershirt and then puts on a white bathrobe; ultimately he snaps himself into a bustier into which he inserts falsies, presumably mimicking Monroe’s curves. He paints his fingernails, adds makeup (aided by Fleming who applies false eyelashes) and dresses in Monroe’s iconic white dress, from The Seven Year Itch. Fleming takes on aspects of a mother, comforting him/her during a pills and liquor episode. 

In the course of the work, real life characters including Pearl Bailey, Truman Capote and Monroe’s husband, Arthur Miller, are invoked alongside places like LA’s Chateau Marmont. LA and Sparta—both in New York and Greece. There are references to Helen’s daughter, Hermione, and bursts of “song” from Fleming declaiming what a disaster it is to be a woman. 

It was never clear where the production is set or when—reality shows and other references mentioned first appeared well after the 60s. At one point the dark stage, lit mostly by table lamps, brightens as ceiling tiles flash on and off. Wishaw plays a ukulele and sings lightly. To complete the Monroe transformation he dons a blonde wig while Fleming talks and sings on. 

The work feels like writer Anne Carson, aided by director Katie Mitchell, has thrown a lot of disparate elements, some only slightly linked, at the audience in the hopes that some resonate. A few do. I used to feel sorry for the hounded Monroe; in this work I felt sorry for Wishaw, an actor of great talent who isn’t given material worthy of it. Neither is Fleming but at least she uses her lyric soprano with its clear tones. 

Anne Carson says that she wanted to transform a Euripides drama from 412 BCE into a contemporary work. What results is confusing most of the time and pretentiously arty. The work is sort of riff on the Greek drama that fails to engender emotion or make the stories of either woman come to life. The Shed wants to “take creative risks and push artistic boundaries,” is a commendable mission but, in Norma Jeane, the end result is a lot of empty space and thought with an overlay of self-conscious back-patting. Better luck next time.

About the author

Mari S. Gold

Mari S. Gold is a freelance writer who contributes to many magazines and websites. Her blog, But I Digress… , on cultural events, travel, food  and other topics is at www.marigoldonline.net. She lives in New York City.

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