Peter Brook‘s “The Valley of Astonishment” is good science, bad theater

By Lucy Komisar

This play about synesthesia, the mixing of senses (sound and color; taste and shape) was inspired by director Peter Brook‘s reading “The Man Who Mistaked His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sachs. Case studies about brain imaging.

Kathryn Hunter in ‘The Valley of Astonishment,’ photo Pascal Victor.

Alas, the production by Brook and his longtime collaborator, Marie-Hél¨ne Estienne, might be interesting as a presentation to a medical convention, but it doesn‘t make it as a play. More‘s the pity that it wastes the talent of the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter, who has performed in other avant garde productions in New York, most memorably and brilliantly in “Kafka‘s Monkey.”

Here she plays a reporter, Sunny Kostas. Her editor wonders why she isn‘t taking notes at a meeting. She repeats everything that has been said. He fires her (the first absurd part of the plot) because, we assume, she is too important to remain a reporter and sends her to some doctors doing research in cognitive science. They are Marcello Magni, also an acceptable longtime Brook player, and Jared McNeill, a not very exciting new member of his entourage. (Hunter is in a league by herself. Think Vanessa Redgrave or someone of that great talent.)

They sit at a wood table, the doctors in white coats, and examine the woman‘s phenomenon.

Her memory is associative. She puts words into places on streets. Or numbers on a blackboard. What is the point? That clever people use memory tricks? There‘s no drama, no characters, who cares? It‘s a scientific article, not a play.

Kathryn Hunter, Jared McNeill and Marcello Magni, photo Pascal Victor.

The cases and characters shift. At one point, McNeill is an artist inspired by music as he pushes a brush on a long stick to paint a canvas. So?

The most boring and unnecessary part of the evening was the arrival of a mentalist (Magni) who does card tricks, taking people out of the audience to pull cards and guess them.

If the play wasn‘t by Brook, it would not have been produced at a top-of-the-line theater like TFNA.

The Valley of Astonishment.” Written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hél¨ne Estienne. From C.I.C.T/Thé tre des Bouffes du Nord. Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn. 866-811-4111. Students or under 30, $20. Opened Sept 18, 2014; closes Oct 5, 2014. 9/25/14.


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