Review: Joan Didion’s ‘The White Album,’ Now in Living Color

Artists like to wrestle with strong texts; it’s good exercise for them. But what does it do for the audience? What value is added, for instance, to Joan Didion’s classic essay “The White Album” by turning it into a piece of theater?

After all, you can read the original easily enough on your own. Or, right now, as part of a trial offer from Audible, you can hear it recited, if somewhat dryly, by the actress Susan Varon for free.

Neither of those experiences will be especially visual, so one enhancement provided by the elaborate production of “The White Album” that opened on Wednesday night as part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is something spectacular to keep your eyes busy.

To begin with, at center stage, there is a kind of glass house — the kind whose inhabitants shouldn’t throw stones. Over the course of the 90-minute work, this structure, designed by the P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S architectural firm, will represent several locales, including the Los Angeles home Ms. Didion lived in during the period covered by her essay. But it also represents the essay’s central theme: The attempt to corral chaotic experience within the architecture of storytelling.

For Ms. Didion, that was not just a literary but a spiritual exercise, conducted in opposition to what she calls the “accidie” — the moral torpor — of the late 1960s. Her essay, a triumph of New Journalism, crosscuts scenes involving Huey Newton, the Doors, campus protests and the Tate-LaBianca murders with descriptions of her own physical ailments and moral confusion.

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But as staged by Lars Jan for his Early Morning Opera company, the connective tissue is missing. He does give us, as Ms. Didion, the actress Mia Barron, reciting (from memory) the essay in its entirety. Though this figure occasionally enters the action or, at one astonishing moment stands atop it, she for the most part exists in her own world, well apart from the house in which Mr. Jan creates illustrations of her words.

The glass panels give those illustrations the boxed appearance of a comic strip, as does the often buffoonish action within them. Jim Morrison flies through a Doors recording session like a child playing a superhero; campus radicals write empty watchcries on a whiteboard. When the essay reaches its climax in the Charles Manson material, Mr. Jan counters with a grotesque cartoon shootout between a police officer and a protester, complete with Tarantino-style spatterings of blood.

But it’s the text that is killed, by literal upstaging.

That’s a shame, because Ms. Barron, dressed like Ms. Didion in a sweater and long skirt, recites it beautifully, with just the right ratio of reserve and terror you might have imagined when reading it in print.

And no one could say that Ms. Barron, who is credited along with Mr. Jan as a creator of the piece, hogs the spotlight. (In fact, the lighting design, by Andrew Schneider and Chu-hsuan Chang, often leaves her in the dark.) Perhaps it is a relief to her when snippets of the original text that represent dialogue — what a doctor tells her, what Huey Newton says at a news conference — are ladled out to four performers who portray many of the ancillary characters.

It’s not a relief for us, though. The fragmentation of the storytelling seems to undermine Ms. Didion’s authority, not to mention her coherence. This unfortunate effect is enhanced by another of Mr. Jan’s notions: the addition of a second (or “inner”) audience of volunteers who participate in the show. At first they do so merely by watching it picturesquely while sitting on the floor of the stage, but later they are herded into the box to serve as extras in party scenes and as student protesters at San Francisco State College.

I suppose this inner audience is meant to connect our time to that one. But like many once avant-garde notions — the Next Wave Festival has become a museum of them — the idea is more satisfying than the reality. I found my mind wandering from questions of apathy and political engagement to questions of stage management. How do those 20 or so volunteers know when to rise, when to shout, when to do a little dance?

In any case, Mr. Jan’s use of them cuts against Ms. Didion’s premise. As written, “The White Album” suggests that the root of the anomie and paranoia of the 1960s was conformism: the stories Americans had for decades been told to tell themselves. By the time the era ended for most people — Ms. Didion pinpoints the day as Aug. 9, 1969, when the Manson murders occurred — that mandate was just beginning to lose its grip.

We now live in the aftermath of that seismic change: no less of a hell, perhaps, but a fresh one. The avant-garde, at least as purveyed here, is way too old hat to capture it.

Next Wave Festival: The White Album

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