Sontag in Wonderland

Auteur Director Ivo van Hove Brings Some Radical Will to ‘Alice in Bed’

What especially attracted van Hove was the way Alice's Beckettian inertia—she can't go on, she'll go on in bed—is accompanied by an acute intellectual awareness. For him, the play is "a study in solitude," a portrait of a woman ill-equipped to deal with quotidian harshness, yet one who possesses an incredibly rich inner life. The production—which premiered this summer at the Holland Festival, where van Hove is artistic director—creates a multimedia dreamscape centering almost entirely on Alice's mental travels. Joan MacIntosh, who won an Obie for her performance in van Hove's 1997 production of More Stately Mansions, plays the immobilized Alice; the rest of the actors all appear on video, with the exception of Belgian actor Jorre Vandenbussche, as the thief who seductively loots Alice's surprisingly hospitable room. Taking his customary nonliteral approach to text, van Hove not only forgoes the stack of mattresses, but, as he puts it himself, "turns the experience into a kind of drifting, opium-induced monologue."

Let the controversy begin. Sontag at least has given van Hove her blessing, as she did Robert Wilson, who directed his own mattress-less Alice in Berlin six years ago. (The U.S. premiere took place in Boston in 1996, an A.R.T. New Stages production directed by Bob McGrath.) Though the play may be literary in subject, its fluid theatrical style invites auteurial collaboration, and Sontag is thrilled to be working with someone she considers "one of the most important living directors." After seeing Streetcar three times—she's still haunted by Elizabeth Marvel's searing performance as Blanche—Sontag is convinced that "the future of theater as something you want to see rather than something you want to read in a book" lies in the hands of people like van Hove. "We don't have many directors like that anymore," she adds. "We have one obvious one, Elizabeth LeCompte, who's the American theater director I most admire. Robert Wilson too, of course—though he's increasingly distracting himself with projects like doing the decor for the Guggenheim's Armani show." LeCompte stands out in Sontag's mind not only because she has "her own company of brilliant performers," but because she's stayed faithful to her aesthetic and developed "a real theater instrument."

Given the tremendous excitement van Hove's productions have generated in the downtown artistic community, it's disappointing the way he's been casually dismissed by so many critics. The long-standing tradition here of a "director's theater"—the work of people like JoAnne Akalaitis, Ping Chong, Peter Sellars, and Andrei Serban, to name a few—seems to have fallen out of journalistic favor. More distressing, however, is the thumbs-up, thumbs-down consumer-report style of reviewing that has discouraged rigorous engagement with this kind of challenging, ambitious, and, yes, often fascinatingly flawed work.

Van Hove and Sontag at New York Theater Workshop: a “career invalid” in the looking glass
photo: Robin Holland
Van Hove and Sontag at New York Theater Workshop: a “career invalid” in the looking glass

Though the latest NYTW offering is unlikely to change anyone's mind about van Hove, perhaps his triply deceitful Alice—one that's unfaithful not only to Alice James and Lewis Carroll, but also to Sontag's own stage directions—will expand the scope of poetic license. Both director and playwright agree that an artist should have free rein to revise the factual and theatrical pasts. History may depend on slavish accuracy, but as Oscar Wilde once observed, imagination is built on provocative lies.

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