BWW Review: Fleming and Whishaw Open NY Arts Center, The Shed, with NORMA JEANE BAKER OF TROY

BWW Review: Fleming and Whishaw Open NY Arts Center, The Shed, with NORMA JEANE BAKER OF TROY
Renee Fleming in rehearsal.
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

Helen of Troy didn't launch a thousand ships but was a put-upon sexual victim and Marilyn Monroe--born Norma Jeane Baker, of the title--was a cloud in the shape of a woman. It was also a "disaster to be a girl" in those days before #MeToo, with powerful men (whether Menelaus or Arthur Miller) holding beautiful women captive (and worse).

BWW Review: Fleming and Whishaw Open NY Arts Center, The Shed, with NORMA JEANE BAKER OF TROY
Ben Whishaw in rehearsal.
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Those were some of the issues covered in Anne Carson's new "dramatic work," NORMA JEANE BAKER OF TROY, with its effective tonal score by Paul Clark, and a cast of two wonderful performers, soprano Renee Fleming and British actor Ben Whishaw, under the direction of Brit Katie Mitchell.

If the new non-profit arts center, the Shed, wanted to start off with a bang, it certainly made a right choice with this world premiere commission, a dramatic work that combines music, drama and some impersonations and drag for good measure. Whishaw plays a translator of Euripedes--his little-known play, HELEN, about the Troy woman, in particular--with Fleming as his stenographer.

It reimagines history, taking full advantage of the voices and dramatic skills of Fleming--proving with abandon that she may have retired some roles but is not ready to sit home and play mahjong--and Whishaw who offered a brilliant turn that allowed him to morph into Marilyn without ever seeming silly and also show off an appealing light baritone.

BWW Review: Fleming and Whishaw Open NY Arts Center, The Shed, with NORMA JEANE BAKER OF TROY
Whishaw and Fleming.
Photo: Stephanie Berger

As they work in a darkened office--designed by Alex Eales, with lighting by Anrthony Doran and sound by Donato Wharton--on New Year's Eve, he goes off on a tangent. He is more interested in Marilyn Monroe, it seems, than in the seductress of Troy--or, at least, in the relationship between the two characters as they have been shown in art and history. (Carson also brings in other people from Marilyn's life, including "Arthur of New York and Sparta," aka Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, Pearl Bailey and Monroe's psychoanalyst.)

As the 90-minute, intermission-less piece goes on, Whishaw sings duets--as if they had been doing it forever--with Fleming, who evolves from being up-tight to game-for-anything, and sounds marvelous in Clark's score, sometimes live, sometimes recorded. She doesn't blink an eye as he begins changing his clothes, and support garments (adding butt and breast padding), becoming the Marilyn of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH.

To try to delve too much into the action on stage couldn't possibly do it justice, riding the fine lines between expressionist, absurdist and realism. You have to just sit back in your chair and let the experience wash over you. Director Mitchell keeps the boats from floundering on the way to Troy, with Fleming and Whishaw definitely making it worth the ride--bet on it.

The Shed

BWW Review: Fleming and Whishaw Open NY Arts Center, The Shed, with NORMA JEANE BAKER OF TROY
The Shed, from NY's High Line. Photo: Iwan Baan.

The Shed is the non-profit arts organization in the Hudson Yards, Manhattan's newest neighborhood--though I use the word "neighborhood" in only the broadest sense.

It feels like the kind of area where people are dropped in by helicopter, then whisked away to their condos and pampered within an inch of their lives--if they actually live there and not in some oligarchy halfway around the world. (If you need to ask what the apartments can't afford it.)

Residents could also stop off for a look around Cartier or Van Cleef and Arpels jewelers, the exclusive items in Neiman-Marcus or--for laughs--buy a 99-cent pen in Muji, the Japanese retailer. Food ranges from chicken fingers to haute cuisine.

While the residences/office buildings around it look pretty sterile (and tall), the $500-million, city-sponsored Shed is rather interesting, and more human-scaled, as if it were wrapped by the artist Christo before colliding with one of the high rises. There's 25,000 sq. ft. of gallery space that can be used for everything from concerts (Bjork will be there from May 6 through June 1) to large scale art installations.

The theatre is certainly comfortable enough--but I'm not sure that the architect, Liz Diller, actually thought about how people enter a performing space (i.e., line up). On the night I attended, there was the mother of all traffic jams that shouldn't have happened, as people exited the escalator and tried to go into the theatre. The staff was helpful but "due to circumstances beyond [their] control...". Advice: Get there early.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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