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Theatre For A New Audience (#110 of 2)

Theater Review: Measure for Measure at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

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Theater Review: Measure for Measure at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Theatre for a New Audience

Theater Review: Measure for Measure at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

As the crowd waited in the lobby of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center for the curtain to rise on Simon Godwin’s production of Measure for Measure, a voice on the loudspeaker said that the bordello was now open. This isn’t the way Shakespeare productions typically begin, even in Brooklyn. Theatre for a New Audience built a passage from the lobby to the theater, with simulated acts of sadomasochism in the occasional opening on either side, separated by a hallway lined with rows of sex toys on small shelves, more boutique retail than museum. Guests were greeted at the entrance by a bored woman with a thick Slavic accent. “Nice to see you again,” she muttered to my wife.

The Valley of Astonishment Interview with Kathryn Hunter

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The Valley of Astonishment Interview with Kathryn Hunter
The Valley of Astonishment Interview with Kathryn Hunter

The preternaturally talented Kathryn Hunter practically defies credulity on stage. Last year, in Kafka’s Monkey, the diminutive performer, using her ultra-flexible limbs, throaty voice, and piercing intelligence, transformed herself into a sentient male chimpanzee who had been taught to speak and behave like a human. A few months later, she equally dazzled as an ageless, genderless, shape-shifting Puck in Julie Taymor’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Greek-American actress, who grew up in England and has worked mostly overseas, is currently back in New York, at Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in the aptly titled The Valley of Astonishment, a theater piece about the miracles of the mind co-written and directed by the renowned Peter Brook and his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. I caught up with Hunter recently to learn more about the new work and about her own remarkable journey as an actress.

How would you describe The Valley of Astonishment?

I would say it’s an exploration of what it is to be human. We meet a woman who has a prodigious memory, a young man who has synesthesia, which is a condition where the senses are mixed—a sound becomes a color, words have tastes and forms and shapes—and we meet another man who’s lost his sense of his body and is paralyzed, but who manages to walk again by controlling his limbs with his eyes. In the end it follows, most specifically, the story of the woman, Sammy, who becomes a performing mnemonist; she memorizes so many words and tables of numbers for these performances and then suffers from the inability to forget, and so she starts hallucinating. The piece has an unusual form, which I think people will find intriguing. As with the best storytelling, it changes narrative, changes tone; there’s humor and then it shifts to a more poetic level. Peter [Brook] is continuing his [previous] exploration of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which was based on the Oliver Sacks books. These neurological disorders, in fact, turn out to be quite wondrous. So at the end of the day, I think I would characterize the play as a celebration of the human being, a celebration of difference.