The Shed, a high-profile venue just built in the area called Hudson Yards, self-describes as a “civically engaged cultural institution” commissioning artists “to take risks and push artistic boundaries.” Norma Jeane Baker of Troy stars the high-profile actor Ben Whishaw and the high-profile soprano Renée Fleming, helmed by high-profile director Katie Mitchell and written by high-profile poet and classicist Anne Carson. All this high-profileness promised both excitement and cutting-edge art.
Norma Jeane Baker (Marilyn Monroe’s real name) and Helen of Troy, are icons of female beauty, and so Carson merges them, with some help from Euripides, who saw Helen as a rape victim and not the destroyer of two civilizations. Thus the show’s program notes stake a claim for hashtag Relevance (a word I am getting well and truly sick of).
Here’s what I saw:
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1963 (we know this from a radio turned on briefly). On a dimly — very dimly — lit stage, the set is an office, and a man (Whishaw), dressed in a suit and tie, dictates lesson plans for a course in the History of War into a tape recorder while a woman (Fleming), in a prim suit with sensible shoes types what he dictates.
As time passes — slowly, very slowly — we hear references to Arthur Miller (Monroe’s husband) as Menelaus (Helen’s husband), and occasionally Whishaw will strum a vague ditty on a violin and Fleming will drone a semi-musical choral ode (score by Paul Clark).
If you’ve come for Fleming’s magnificent voice, you will be disappointed. If you’ve come for Whishaw in drag (we’ve been here before, folks) you will watch him dress himself in the iconic Monroe white halter dress and blonde wig. He will then sit on a desk, wash down many pills with champgne, and die.
To tell you the truth, I have no idea what this show is about. Maybe it’s an anti-war statement, or maybe it’s an analysis of the male constrct of female beauty. Maybe it’s an anti-celebrity statement. Maybe the Whishaw character’s suicide is a form of self-erasure as a man. Maybe this is an indictment of our perspective on cultural history: It wasn’t Helen who went to Troy, we’re told, but a “cloud,” while the real Helen was wisked off to L.A. in a “scam that fooled everyone.” Well, they said it, not me.