In the intimate black vacuum of the Loeb Experimental Theater, an all-white catwalk begins at a delicate white backdrop, subtly slanting downward across the space to nearly cut the room diagonally. The audience sits along either side in small bleacher clusters, the noticeably comfortable space between their seats an appreciated—and probably intentional—detail. After all, it could not have been lost on director Matthew C. Stone ’11 that British playwright Martin Crimp’s “Attempts on Her Life” is not a play that makes anyone feel like being close.
As soon as audience members walk into this latest Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Company production, each is confronted with the vulnerability of a young woman (Jessica Napier ’11) self-consciously stripped to her plain, black skivvies in the middle of the stage. Everyone suddenly becomes an accomplice, mutually guilty of his invasion into the presumably fictitious reality created by the girl on the pedestal; All are at least partially responsible for her furrowed brow and the arms she has arranged protectively across her front as she shivers from the violation. The entire show is uncomfortable in its emotional, if not spatial, proximity—its intensity dull and ever-present, though not entirely unbearable. “We need to feel what we’re seeing is real,” shouts a male character in scene five (“The Camera Loves You”) at a different but similarly exposed incarnation of this original female character. “It isn’t just acting, it’s far more exacting than acting... We’re talking reality.”
The initial discomfort caused and expressed by Napier cracks the divide between the reality of the audience’s pre-show chatterings and that of the play’s. Stone ties a knot around this introductory tension between voyeuristic guilt and pleasure. He engages the audience in his challenge to untangle the thread which he proceeds to reveal in glimpses throughout the show’s “17 Scenarios for Theatre,” the play’s subtitle. However, this strand proves to be so complexly woven through and around itself that its fragments suggest a continuity but no sense that understanding is entirely possible; ultimately the viewer must tease out as much temporal logic as possible and then swiftly slice the remaining Gordian mess into decidedly more manageable, but also severely limited, strands. In these clips, molded around the existence of “Anne,” contradictions in personality and humanity surface. Through them arises the theme of life’s consistency, existent despite the reminder that “consistency” does not necessarily lend a piece a point.
Even less of a coherent universe was provided in Crimp’s original script. There is no plot, no intended them, no designated setting or designated speakers—just lines of dialogue with dashes to signal a change of voice, or ellipses to suggest a pause. Without dictated sexes or any guidelines for gathering an “appropriately” composed cast, though, long narrative passages (indicated as belonging to a single speaker in the script) can be manipulated and divided at the director’s discretion, just as all non-lingual elements must be. It’s a daunting challenge, but one that Stone accepts in his third directorial endeavor to wonderfully creative and moving effect. Since its first performance in 1997 at the Royal Court Theatre, “Attempts on Her Life” has left audiences feeling disoriented; who is this Anne—or Anny or Anushka—that everyone is discussing? This confusion is much less prominent an issue in Stone’s version.
His four female players alternate as the lead role (the three males play more static supporting characters, filling roles as “anyman”), but each has her own personality—a strain of Anne’s personality—that is carried along with her physical representation throughout the show.
Napier is sexy but painfully conflicted internally; the basic vulnerability she established at the very beginning lingers throughout the show. As the voiceless artist, writhing in blood, chocolate, and saliva during scene 11 (“Untitled (100 Words)”), her body contorts, suggesting an inner beast yearning to escape. As Anne, moments of anger cause her eyes to glaze over and her mouth to froth. Such strong displays of emotion capitalize on the fuzzy space between internal and external theatrical reality.
Similarly, the three other female characters play roles consistent in their appearances as Anne throughout the show. Ella Gibson ’13 pierces the show with a stern cool that permeates her part as the pessimistic narrator in scene three (“Faith in Ourselves”); as the disparaging art critic in “Untitled”; as the skeptical interrogator in scene 15 (“The Statement”); and as the seemingly sweet but aggressively homophobic, racist young mother in scene 10 (“Kinda Funny”). Rebecca Feinberg ’13 elicits sympathy as Anne, the lonely cigarette stealer, while Margaret Kerr ’13 captures Anne in “The Camera Loves You” not in a dynamic display of violent agency, but in its complete absence.
As in all aspects of this primarily bare play, Stone has couched the palpable void in details that are brutally suited to the mood of the play. Props are minimal—table, black cube, coffee, or scotch. Spotlights focus on specific narrators. The technological longing, imbued in tracks by Panda Bear, Thom Yorke (with and without Radiohead), capture the melting, quiet terror of a modern generation; videos unveil landscapes and devastation upon the backdrop during “Faith in Ourselves,” and then, scenes later, the sleek curves of a new model vehicle in “The New Anny.” “What fascinates me is her use of textures,” offers one art critic during “Untitled.” “I think there’s a great sensitivity here in the juxtaposition of materials.” The entire performance presents a similarly impressive layering and contrasts of sparseness and chaotic engagements; in scene 14 (“Girl Next Door”) the movement of all seven players and their various intonations are in unison, yet they trip up the rhythm of the play by seeming to trip over each other in the small space. Still, stutters and stammers—both vocal and technical—are forgivable in the context of the play’s various moves to crack the fourth wall.
“Strangely,” as Sterle shouts through the megaphone again in the aptly named scene 12 (“Strangely!”), the lights dim on Napier at the close of the show, leaving her sprawled on the floor in the dark as in the first scenario. Now, however, we have at least some understanding as to the immediate cause. It’s a full circle orchestrated by Stone that capitalizes on the necessarily absent center of a continuous loop, and though the action has come to a close, its ideas continue to linger—unlike the show itself, which closes on Nov. 21.
“Attempts on Her Life”...
“It’s illuminating. It’s dark. It’s highly personal and at the same time raises vital questions about the world we’re living in.” And it’s a production not to be missed.
—Staff writer Beryl C.D. Lipton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.