In The Valley of Astonishment (which played at Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn until October 5), Peter Brook, the minimalist, finds interest in a woman with an overcrowded mind. Of course, he, and his co-author and director, Marie-Hélène Estienne, become intrigued with how to empty it.  The postmodern Chaplin, Kathryn Hunter, spindly legged with big feet, plays the reporter, Samy (inspired by the real life of Solomon Shereshevsky), who has a photographic memory (the neurological term is synesthesia, where senses overlap—such as experiencing a number as a color). She goes into show business, as a novelty act, and, ultimately, leaves her brain to science.  In the meantime, no one can figure out how to use her, beyond entertainment—why turn to a human computer, it is assumed, when it’s easier to buy a calculator at Radio Shack?  Seemingly a study of what is not immediately practical (and, perhaps the character is a metaphor for actors, directors, and theater practitioners, as well), such a mind may have aided a bard in housing an Iliad or Odyssey—today, it can get someone fired for being overqualified (like Samy).  The human being is astonishing, but there is a burden to current society and even the self—for being so unique and medically misunderstood. This may be part of the creative vision: Brook writes that “If we go to the theatre, it’s because we want to be surprised, even amazed.  And yet we can only be concerned if we can feel a strong link with ourselves.  So, these two opposite elements have to come together—the familiar and the extraordinary.” Not that Hunter’s character is singular (or her method of memorization–despite its speed.  It really can be used for everyday study anywhere: the system, often called the Memory Palace, is ancient, used long before Macs or iPads by great philosophers, such as Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas).  It’s surprising that the doctors in this piece don’t know about this, but such are the problems of centralized power and insistence on the normal—this may also be the writers' and directors' way of showing us the mundane. 

According to investigators Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder, the Russian Mikhail Kuni—who also became an entertainer in the early to mid part of the twentieth century–demonstrated similar abilities.  He could give correct answers for the number of “spilled matches, teeth in a comb, or huge columns of figures,” as well as fish in a pool. Typically blindfolded during his shows, he could also calculate math problems on five spinning blackboards.  Unfortunately, like Sami, he felt that the stage was not where he wanted to use his gift.  Instead,   he hoped to be an artist: “Giving up painting was the most tragic mistake of my whole life.”

The Valley of Astonishment, (played with two musicians—and including parts of the Persian poem “The Conference of the Birds”–on a stage setting of several chairs, a table, and hat rack in blond wood) ultimately, highlights the limitations of medical science, demonstrating how Hunter’s character is not prized for the grandeur of her mental capabilities, but rather for her freakishness.  In The Valley of Astonishment, we also meet a composer who hears in color; a paralytic who finds a way to use his legs, arms, and hands; and a mentalist, who can tell the names of shuffled, face-down cards (even on the escalator on the way out of the theatre, a young woman began describing that she felt she also might be considered an synesthete).  It is interesting that Hunter’s character does not lose her abilities, given society’s interest in mainstreaming, materialism, and socialization (and maybe she couldn’t).  Unfortunately, Brook and Estienne leave us confined, interpreting a lab rat (which is how the character finally sees herself: she does not reach astonishment). Instead of a multifarious human mind or even human being, we rely on patriarchal science, which must find a way to catch up, fast.  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Hamlet tells his friend. Two of them might be human potential and inspiration.

The Valley of Astonishment

Written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne; lighting by Philippe Vialatte; production stage manager, Richard A. Hodge. A C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord production, presented by Theater for a New Audience, Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director; Henry Christensen III, chairman; Dorothy Ryan, managing director. At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, at Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; 866-811-4111, Through Oct. 5. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

WITH: Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill (Actors) and Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori (Musicians).

Press: Bruce Cohen

(c) 2014 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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