WHAT "Norma Jeane Baker of Troy"
WHEN | WHERE Through May 19, The Shed, 545 W. 30th St.
INFO From $49, 646-455-3494, theshed.org
BOTTOM LINE The Shed announces its experimental intentions with this perplexing mashup of words and music.
The slight, well-dressed young man furtively enters a darkened office, loaded with baggage both literal and emotional in nature. A radio announcer sets time and place: midnight, Times Square, Jan. 1, 1964.
So begins "Norma Jeane Baker of Troy," the perplexing hybrid of spoken word and opera commissioned to open the Griffin Theater at The Shed, the entertainment complex set at one end of the sprawling new ode to conspicuous consumption known as Hudson Yards.
Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming star in this absurdist mashup that doesn't quite manage to connect the lives of two legendary beauties who lived centuries apart: Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortenson, she used the name Norma Jeane Baker in her youth). Writer Anne Carson, an essayist and poet in residence at New York University, says in press materials that she wrote the piece specifically for Whishaw, the actor seen lately on screens big ("Mary Poppins Returns") and small (Netflix's "A Very English Scandal"). Fleming, one of the world's most renowned opera singers and recently on Broadway in "Carousel," is somewhat wasted as she performs the music portion of the story, singing Paul Clark’s vaguely operatic score.
What actually happens in this 90-minute piece of performance art, directed with obvious devotion to difficult material by Katie Mitchell, is not easy to describe. Whishaw comes in, dumps the suitcases, pins a few photos of Monroe to an easel. Fleming follows, ready to work as the secretary hired to take dictation of what might be a play. Or is it a history lesson?
Words flow as he tries to relate the stories of the two women, but it's almost impossible to follow, especially since you can't take your eyes off Whishaw as he busily transforms himself into Marilyn. He trades his business suit for padded undergarments, then goes to work on his makeup, with Fleming (neither of the characters has a name) helping with his false lashes. By the time he gets to the blond wig and that iconic white dress (you know, the one that lost the battle with the subway grate), he’s downing an unhealthy combination of Champagne and pills. We all know where this ends up.
If there’s any takeaway, perhaps it’s a line repeated frequently in the piece, something about how dangerous it is to be born a woman. More to the point, though, is the declaration of intention by the people running The Shed, where future productions include a kung fu musical featuring the songs of Sia. Don’t look for a revival of "Guys and Dolls" here, they seem to be saying. This is a place where you should expect the unexpected.