Friday, May 9, 2014

Desperately seeking Sontag

Moe Angelos as Susan Sontag.

It would be nice to say that Sontag: Reborn, the latest from the Builders Association (at ArtsEmerson through May 18) amounts to more than just high-end hagiography.

But . . . would that be quite true?  Oh, dear . . . This is another one of those times when I'm going to have to ignore my mother's sage advice about not saying anything if you can't say something nice. Which I feel a little bad about, because I do admire, or at least half-admire, Susan Sontag, and Reborn was clearly birthed by people who were genuinely taken with her.  Its imagery (the stage is suffused with the ghosts of her words and self) is bewitchingly apt, and its central performance, by the talented Moe Angelos (as directed by Marianne Weems) is a wonder of focus, imagination, and just plain memorization.

And certainly much of what Susan Sontag did and said has held up far better than what many others of her generation did and said.  She's a bit of a fraud, yes, but also at least partly the Real Thing - not so much a great original as an assiduous intellectual naturalist who was constantly constructing periodic tables out of cultural phenomena. And she had quite a nose for trends, and what you could only call intellectual show-biz (tellingly, her closest undergraduate friend was Mike Nichols).

And at her best, her writing - particularly her early stuff - was memorable for its bracing clarity.  On Photography is still great, I think, and while I'm less taken with the celebrated "Notes on Camp," at least it broached to the eggheads what had been percolating in queer culture for some time - so I suppose it deserves its historical niche. Yes, the later "illness as metaphor" schtick was inflated, and the novels are dreadful - but then Sontag: Reborn doesn't ponder these stumbles, as it closes right at the high-water mark of her achievement (the publication of "Camp"). 

So with all that in mind . . . what can I say about Sontag: Reborn. Well, if you think of yourself as a little arty, and a little literary, and above all you are also a Sontag naïf, then I think this valentine to her persona will please. You'll thrill as she wrestles with her homosexuality, breaks free of a stifling marriage, hangs with the cool kids in Greenwich Village, and somehow raises her son while touching down at the University of Chicago, Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne (!), where needless to say everyone is incredibly awed by how she can power-rap about seemingly every author who ever lived.

Of course if you've heard a few of the many tales of her appalling narcissism and ruthless networking, or know that she remained publicly closeted till the end of her life, or have a sense of how often her chatter skated out onto thin, derivative ice, then you may grow restive. Her "coming out" story will strike you as, well, a bit ironic, and you may realize that in her avowed intention to "create herself" in her journals (which form the core of the show), she's only retailing the ideas of older, better writers. You may also notice that Angelos and Weems never give us more than a taste of their Great Mind's actual output. Indeed, for all the script's claims to high-cult content, it only tags Sontag's topics, sans any actual argument or debate.  This despite the fact that the elder Sontag looms over her younger, wildly precocious self (via a perfectly synchronized video projection) and listens patiently to how addicted she is to pondering her own identity - without ever interrogating her positions from an older, wiser perspective. Hmmm. I guess one "rebirth" was enough.

Still, Angelos is a wonder; she convincingly conjures Sontag at 16 and at 60. And the video design by Austin Switser is pleasingly subtle - it's worth noting, I think, that the action is framed within a screen which maps to Sontag's desk, the surface of which is likewise rear-projected onto the back wall; thus mind and desk and theatre and self are all one.

And to be honest, Angelos and Weems did conjure in me a powerful nostalgia - not for Sontag, perhaps, but for the folly of her lost milieu.  The whole world she conquered has seemingly vanished - all the name-dropping at the cocktail parties and book readings, and the bad sex with the professors and editors, the discussions of the orgasm and how it relates to Marx, all the smoking and drinking and drinking and smoking, and most of all the touching faith that idle academic chatter could conjure a measure of pop stardom - all that's gone now. 

And in the rearview it does look like fun.

So here's to Marx.

And the orgasm.

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