Monday, April 18, 2011

Behind the Eye: Catch A Rising Star at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

I heard Neil ordering tickets for a play.  Eric said it's about a Vogue fashion model turned photographer.  He knew I didn't know about that stuff so they showed me what I would look like on a Vogue cover.  I like to think that I can compete with the best of them! What do you think?

      Sarah Agnew delivers a star-making performance in Behind the Eye, a world premiere written by Carson Kreitzer and directed by Mark Wing-Davey.  We saw Sarah Agnew in November 2009 in John Doyle’s very original version of Three Sisters at the Playhouse.  She played Natasha and had the guts to play her as a villainess.  The final image where she climbed on a side table and owned both the stage and the world of the play was chilling.  In Behind the Eye, she owns the stage, the audience, and seems to be channeling Lee Miller while playing her.

Lee Miller, 1929 (Man Ray gelatin silver print)
      Lee Miller (1907–1977) left the U.S. at eighteen for Paris, where she modeled, worked with Surrealist photographer Man Ray, traveled to Egypt and married, though his first wife then killed herself, and then England, where she found a lover who eventually became her second husband.

Lee Miller covering WWII
in Alsace for British Vogue in 1944
(David E. Scherman)
She was a photojournalist, documenting the North African campaign and the final invasion of Germany, where she took the first photographs of the Dachau death camp.  After the war, she returned to her English husband, had a son, worked for Vogue, and tried to reconcile what the first half of her life had done to her.

      A tight ensemble plays multiple roles in support of Agnew.  The production moves at a lightning rate with an emotional force that gathers momentum to a devastating climax and a breathtaking final stage image.  Throughout the show, there is a continuing visual surrealism with props appearing seemingly out of nowhere, and lighting and sound effects that seem photographic, constantly reminding us of the importance of the camera and its ostensibly objective lens as used by a photographer.  Kreitzer smartly turned a two-act play into a lengthy (105 minutes) one act, but it’s necessary to achieve the resonance of that final ten-minute section where Miller takes the final measure of her life.  This is the third of Kreitzer’s works to be directed by Wing-Davy and premiered at the Playhouse.  It’s a thrilling relationship that will hopefully be sustained in the future.

      Standing ovations in Cincinnati have become so de rigeur that they rarely seem deserved.  It used to be that we knew an edgy, thrilling show in Cincinnati because audience members would walk out during it (I think of the Broadway Series’ An Inspector Calls in 1996 and Cabaret in 2000), but this production received a much deserved standing ovation at a Sunday evening performance at exactly the right moment, which was when Sarah Agnew came out after the ensemble.  Her elegant manner, lithe body, flapper bobbed hair, and long nose (her face is reminiscent of Meryl Streep’s at that age) exemplifies the 1920s and 1930s.  Technically, her breath control is extraordinary (it’s a huge part that requires a number of soliloquies) and her physical grace and agility seem like that of a Martha Graham dancer of that same period.

      We can only hope that the opportunity avails itself for this production and performance to travel.  So, try to get a ticket now – there are only so many performances left.

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park 
(513) 421-3888

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