Sontag: Reborn

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 13, 2014
Moe Angelos stars (twice over) as Susan Sontag at the Paramount Mainstage through May 18
Moe Angelos stars (twice over) as Susan Sontag at the Paramount Mainstage through May 18  (Source:Arts Emerson)

The Builders Association bring a startling, literally multi-layered one-woman show to Boston's Paramount Mainstage, delving deeply into the innermost thoughts of an American intellectual pioneer. The production continues through May 18 as part of Arts Emerson's "World on Stage" series.

Moe Angelos stars both as a young Sontag, who, at age fourteen, reflects on the nature of rigorous introspection in her journal. She also maps out a plan for her own development: To question, explore, and embrace even those things that others might shy away from. That includes sex, but also pain. The young Sontag is determined to fill her life with rich experience, and her mind with fertile ideas.

Hovering nearby is a black-and-white image of Sontag as an older woman, chain smoking and commenting on her younger self's ruminations. Angelos plays this version of the groundbreaking feminist also, and with only one or two minor hiccups the two performances mesh so well you might be fooled into thinking the older Sontag's performance is being beamed in live from backstage.

The older Sontag is projected on a sheer scrim that hangs in front of the tidy set, which depicts Sontag's study... or, perhaps, her mind; Angelos herself has characterized the dual role she plays and not being that of Sontag, but rather Sontag's writings, presented in the form of her journal but drawn from two of her books, "Reborn" and "Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh." The focus may be Sontag's own youthful journeys -- geographically cosmopolitan as well as intellectually voracious -- but the effect is philosophical in nature, challenging the audience with the fundamentals. When Sontag enters marriage, it's with a man, and it's not a happy union; when she gives birth to a son, she's attentive as a mother but not sentimental about it; and when she falls in love, it's with a series of other women. Sontag directly links her creative output to her sexual and romantic attraction to other women, and it makes sense; though she keeps falling for women of a particularly unromantic sort (they're a little emotionally brutal at times), it's only in these relationships that she develops as a person and a thinker. Her marriage to a man produces a scholarly book, as well as a son, but it's the husband who takes all the credit, his name appearing alone on the cover. To have her voice, to live her life, and to think her thoughts, Sontag has to rescue herself and walk away from the marriage.

Describing her own emotions around her relationships, Sontag is both clinical and impassioned; a poignant, uneasy melody rises in the musical score at the junctures in which she's in love with another woman, with Sontag dissecting her fears, ecstasies, jealousies, and sexual adventures. Meantime, her career as an academic and an intellectual is gaining speed, and she's off to Radcliffe, Oxford, the Sorbonne; she authors books, including a novel that draws at least one scathing review. Angelos' in-the-flesh Sontag leaps from teenager to confident mid-twenties, and then to the thirty-year-old that attacks her writing projects the way her younger self attacked her lengthy reading list. Meantime, the spectral, mature Sontag puffs away, her dry, somewhat skeptical affect never changing. It's a captivating depiction of a complex personality carried out on two levels, illustrating two frames of mind and two periods in the same life. The two Sontags only rarely interact, but even so the entire show amounts to a kind of dialogue between them.

Meantime, a third visual layer engages the audience: Images are rear-projected onto a screen at the back of the set, mostly overhead shots of the desk in real-time video, with visual effects added in such that words scrawl across Sontag's journal pages even when she's not wielding the pen. A couple of times the younger Sontag, having worn herself out, lays on the desk and stares up into the camera, making direct eye contact with the audience; these moments carry a more confessional, vulnerable feeling.

Director Marianne Weems seems locked into a perfectly synchronous artistic communion with Angelos, and together they channel Sontag. The biographical aspect of "Sontag: Reborn" is set out with only the broadest of brush-strokes, but there's a finely milled character about the way in which her intellectual and emotional evolution is presented. It's a thrilling journey to behold; or rather, to partake in, because peering into all those layers of imagery gives one a sense of peeking through a keyhole and seeing, not into a "well of loneliness," but rather deeply into Sontag's soul.


"Sontag: Reborn" continues through May 18 at the Paramount Mainstage. For tickets and more information please visit artsemerson.org/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=sontag

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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