The Valley of Astonishment is sure to have its fans. It has already received rave reviews in London and will undoubtedly draw praise from New York City intellectuals. After all, famed writer and director Peter Brook (along with Marie Helene Estienne) is at the helm and his artistry is highly regarded on both sides of the pond.
And yet, there exists a stark, hollow quality to his latest work, which is intriguing, but empty. On a minimal set consisting of 3 chairs and a coat rack, Brook explores the concept of synesthesia, a physiological and psychological condition which affects how we remember and the tools we use in order to hold memory. For instance, the number 7 might appear as a handlebar mustache in the brain while the number 8 might evoke a fat lady.
A cast of 3 actors, identified only as “actors” and “actress” do a masterful job at attempting to explain the inexplicable mysteries of the mind. The actress (Kathryn Hunter) has an extraordinary capacity for memory and is encouraged by doctors to use this gift to become famous. Soon, she is thrust into the public spotlight but eventually begins to unravel as unanswered questions remain: Can memory be measured and studied? Alternatively, can the loss of memory be understood? An expressly spoken moment comes at a moment when psychiatrists ask whether it was a wise decision for her to seek their counsel in the first place. This leads to a greater inquiry : Does studying the mind create more madness for the patient?
This 80 minute, intermission-less show is cerebral and profound and would make for an intellectually engaging academic paper. As a piece of theater, however, this minimalist piece feels chilly and fails to climb any mountains.
The Valley of Astonishment is playing now through October 5th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place at Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn. For tickets and more information, visit www.tfana.org