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Stories of synaesthesia inspired by Oliver Sacks, a celebrated mnemonist, and an ancient Sufi poem.

Theater Review (NYC): ‘The Valley of Astonishment’ by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne

Kathryn Hunter in The Valley of Astonishment
Kathryn Hunter in ‘The Valley of Astonishment’
Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s The Valley of Astonishment worms its way upward from an abstract and rather pretentious prologue into an increasingly fascinating and entertaining exploration of the phenomenon of synaesthesia. By the time it closes, with a snippet of poetry (from, I gather, the Persian Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” noted as an inspiration for Brook and Estienne’s theatrical explorations of the mind) and a piece of shakuhachi music, it has, in spite of its preciosity, vividly brought to light the worlds of those who have a rare cerebral oddity through which they experience more than one sense in tandem.

In one spectacular scene, a man (Jared McNeill) who experiences sounds also as colors mimes painting his visions on a big white square on the floor of the stage (the same space that hosts the main action of the play) as the two live musicians (Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori) play rip-roaring jazz.

In another remarkable sequence, a man (Marcello Magni) who has lost his sense of proprioception – his awareness of where his body is in space – demonstrates for two doctors how he found a way to overcome the effective paralysis caused by his sudden brain damage and learn to walk and function by guiding his body with his eyes.

But the cerebral play’s main focus is a mnemonist named Samy Costas (Kathryn Hunter), a character inspired by a real man whose remarkable memory was enabled by a kind of synaesthesia. The pioneering neuropsychologist Alexander Luria documented Solomon Shereshevsky‘s abilities over 30 years.

Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, NY
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, NY
Like Shereshevsy, Samy moves from a career as a journalist who never has to take notes to a new livelihood as a professional mnemonist, a stage performer who entertains audiences with feats of memory. Brook and Estienne take advantage of the theatrical setting – and their golden fortune in having the remarkable Kathryn Hunter in the role – to give us a taste of how such shows worked in the first half of the 20th century.

More important, Hunter reveals the mind of a person who is only human despite her superhuman memory. Shy, buffeted by circumstances beyond her control, plagued by her inability to erase from her mind the long strings of words and numbers she commits to memory every night to impress audiences, she’s a character who will live long in the memory of this writer. Hunter’s Samy is by turns funny, frustrated, charming, pained, and sweet. Magni and McNeill do fine work as well, but Hunter is the number one reason this scientifically interesting material becomes emotionally compelling.

I’ll close with a note on Theatre for a New Audience‘s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, for it was my first visit to the main stage of this hypermodern new theater that opened last year near BAM. The big cube-like building is very pleasing to the eye from the outside. The tall theater inside struck me as problematic, though. The thrust is so far forward that those on the side really see the action entirely from the side. From my vantage point on the side of the one-row balcony (which, though it has only one row, has inadequate leg room) I was looking down on the tops of the actors’ heads for most of the show, and to catch much of the action had to lean forward even to see that. Missing their facial expressions and with a distorted view of their gestures, I missed, among other things, a number of the jokes that brought laughter from the audience in the orchestra – and found myself almost wishing for some compensatory synaesthesia myself.

My advice: it doesn’t matter what level you’re on, the acoustics will be good and so will the sight lines from the center section. But get seats in that center section.

The Valley of Astonishment runs through October 5. Get tickets online or call 866-811-4111.

About the Author

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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