At age 89, Peter Brook remains the great magician of the modern stage. Revered for five decades of cross-cultural experiments, this master director continues to conjure something from nothing, creating pure, unmistakable theater from little more than bodies situated in empty space. The Valley of Astonishment, the latest project from his base at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, offers a kind of sequel to The Man Who, Brook’s 1995 venture into the mysteries of the human brain. That earlier production was inspired by Oliver Sacks’s neurological research; The Valley of Astonishment takes its title from a breathtaking Persian poem recited in the middle but for its narrative draws on Alexander Luria’s book, The Mind of a Mnemonist.
Brook and longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne take us a little bit further into the mind’s labyrinths with these stories about people with synesthesia, a condition that causes one to experience cognition in many sensory dimensions at once. The protagonist, Samy Costas (played with wonderful tautness by Kathryn Hunter), processes numbers and language into imagery, sound, taste, and color. The intensity of her sensations can be euphoric or painful — and all the more so because she finds them hard to forget. A magic show is involved, but Brook and Estienne perform the most impressive sleight-of-hand, alchemizing simple tales into revelations of human potential.