It’s sad to think that after all this time some folks still cling to the silly Romantic idea that true art comes via madness. I suppose the truth—that art is really the result of intelligence and stick-to-it-iveness—is not as sexy, but do we really need another clichéd portrayal of the Tormented Artiste?
Playwright-performer Anna Rósa Sigurdardóttir obviously thinks so. In Plums in New York Sigurdardóttir plays a young Icelandic woman, Gudrún, who comes to the city to become a playwright and to suss out the meaning of a dream about—you guessed it—plums in New York. Gudrún initially bunks with an American acquaintance, but after barfing all over her host’s apartment during a party, she checks into the Chelsea Hotel and proceeds to have a nice little nervous breakdown while trying to write a play about August Strindberg.
Gudrún’s unhinging—staged by director Hera Ólafsdóttir as a series of goofy yoga moves—is supposed to parallel Strindberg’s 1897 biographical novel, Inferno, which chronicled five years of depression, drug addiction, and writer’s block while he was an expatriate in Paris. Many critics think Strindberg stretched the truth, but the problem is that Sigurdardóttir misses the point of the book.
Strindberg was 43 and twice divorced when he headed to France; all of his “truth versus reality” talk was a smoke-and-mirrors cover-up of what was actually the documentation of a mid-life crisis. Nothing wrong with that: Middle-aged artists have been using this as fodder for material from Dante to Steely Dan. But Sigurdardóttir sees Strindberg’s breakdown (and her pale imitation) as some kind of unexplainable existential angst—the byproduct of a cold, modern society. And, naturally, it’s a sign of artistic genius. “Strindberg was ahead of his time,” she says. “Like me.”
The folly of youth is partly to blame here, but there’s something even more insidious at work. Gudrún has a dream and so, with mama’s blessing, she hops a plane to the U.S.A. When her pal kicks her out, she effortlessly moves into the hotel. When things get intense, she takes a dance class. This kind of upper-class cluelessness is embodied not only in Sigurdardóttir’s script, but also in the production as a whole. Pricey accoutrements such as a composer/multi-instrumentalist (Rósa Gudmundsdóttir) and a computer-generated background surround the performer. According to the program, the computer imagery is something “never seen in Theatre Set Design before anywhere in the world.” Maybe, but I’m certain I’ve looked at comparable digital images when playing Astromash on my wife’s cell phone.