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Photo by Barry Weiss
Photo by Barry Weiss

Anais: A Dance Opera

Reviewed by Gray Palmer

Greenway Court Theatre

Through September 18


Who is the Anais Nin presented as the subject of Anais: A Dance Opera, by director/choreographer Janet Roston and composer/lyricist Cindy Shapiro, now playing at Greenway Court Theatre? I ask this because she seems to be, improbably, an aspirational figure. Roston and Shapiro’s hybrid theatrical is a smashing show for the ensemble and the stars, with several great set pieces, but their conception seems like a wonky effort to revive Anais Nin’s cultural status. In a program note, the co-creators say, “We seek to emulate the important example she set . . . for female artists in particular, of truthfulness . . .” That couldn’t have been easy to write. Nin’s lies were like a labyrinth of mirrors that she tried to keep straight with a card-catalogue in her purse.

At the height of her American fame, when asked by students about her lack of public engagement as a feminist, Anais Nin said that her aim was to give the world “one perfect life.” And a section of that medusal audience responded by hissing.

At around the same time, Helene Cixous, in The Laugh of the Medusa, gave a sly, short list of twentieth century writers who had inscribed the feminine: Colette, Marguerite Duras and . . . Jean Genet. How does Nin’s work look when placed next to theirs? Certainly big enough in scandal — and with a lot more pages: 250,000 pages of diary alone.

 She was a paper Medusa, the glamorized proto-feminist of those best-selling diaries, the author of porn written for a dollar a page, the bigamist with the Lie Box in her purse, and the victorious seductress of minotaurs including her father. A great subject for the stage.

It’s not news that a play without dialogue can be a refreshing, formal challenge. In Anais, although there is no text for actors to speak, there is a lot of text to read, animated text (with images) in excellent projections designed by Joe LaRue. Because one cannot look and read at the same time, there is a great deal to take in, with a fascinating, rapid modal shift and shuttle for the audience.

In musical design, Anais has a general shape familiar from rock opera. The narrative progresses by alternation of song moods, with an implied programmatic evaluation of the material. Shapiro’s very good music, in a variety of styles, is a set of nine pieces that tell Nin’s story chronologically, along with digressions into the “interior cities.”

The show is framed by a vocalist, Eternal Anais (the very fine Marisa Matthews), singing in the present-time of performance with a view not only of the completed life, but also of the later controversies. (At top of the show she refers to Deidre Bair’s damning 1995 biography, and we read some of its critical reception, such statements as “ . . . a monster of narcissism whose literary pretensions now seem grotesque.”)

Roston’s direction of all the elements of Anais is balanced, her choreography in several set-pieces is a thrilling interplay of principals and ensemble, and the entire role of Anais (the marvelous Miceala De Pauli) is great.

Some highlights: “My Body is Mine” and “Cold Cold Night” make a very good start, especially when the movement is quiet as we begin to receive the show’s language. The real-life recordings of Nin speaking are terrific.

“You See Me,” is an exchange of books between Henry Miller (Michael Quiett) and Nin over a period of time. The principals are reading, while the ensemble simply moves chairs, a beguiling non-performance style of movement, beautiful in itself. The projections at this point (exchanges of letters) are like the real-life “wall of words” (a kind of logos womb created from texts by Miller) that Nin made in her Paris writing-room.

“Train” is an astonishing close-to-the-floor movement with shoulder-rolls on a diagonal toward a corner, then back, in a great performance by De Pauli. Nin’s living-burial nightmare of crawling through tighter and tighter spaces.

“Dream/Guernica,” from the middle of the second act, is the set-piece of the show. Here the ensemble appears transformed by costume and mask into spindly dream animals, featuring lifts with a wheel-like spinning of Anais, while she strikes glyph-like attitudes.

The excellent ensemble is Michael Quiett, Quinn Jaxon, Mathew D’Amico, Jaqueline Hinton, and Denise Woods.

“It is a continual battle to restore her name to the status it once had,” says Paul Herron, the most recent editor of freshly “unexpurgated” Nin diaries. But can that happen except by ignorance or elision? Well, there is a new social media public to conquer. And remember, “We do not see things as they are, we see as we are.”

The dark continent is describable, says Cixous. There’s room for infinite variey, even for the traps of Nin.

The beautiful costumes are by Allison Dillard. The very good lighting is by Michelle Stann. The sound design, by Jack Wall, richly projects the recorded score while integrating the live performance.

Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat. 8 pm.; Sun. 7 pm.; through September 18. (323) 655-7679. Running time: one hour and 30 minutes with intermission.