review: Anna Deavere Smith channels the collective in “Let Me Down Easy” at Berkeley Rep through July 10, 2011
Berkeley Rep’s 43rd season closes with Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy–20 powerful character enactments that parade of out Smith in the matter-of-fact delivery style that has become her signature. Coming from different angles, each enactment brilliantly explores the depths of human strength and how each of us faces down or accepts death. This is Smith’s first Bay Area appearance in 15 years and the playwright has won two Obie awards, two Drama Desk Awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. What’s immediately obvious from this riveting performance is that Smith can listen between the lines like nobody else and from that, she weaves razor-sharp magic.
Most attempts at categorizing Smith’s unique talents fall short—she is a consummate observer of the human condition, a riveting conversationalist, and a pioneer in the verbatim style of theatre that uses interviewees’ actual words to construct the performance. Over the years, her work has looked at current events from multiple points of view and combined the journalistic technique of interviewing sources with the art of interpreting their words through performance. Let Me Down Easy is the 18th part of a series she began in the early 1980s called On the Road: A Search for American Character. Her goal has been to learn as much about America as she can, by interviewing individual Americans from diverse backgrounds and different perceived levels of authority. In Let Me Down Easy, Smith branched out. It took her nine years, but she interviewed over 320 people on three continents, though most of her subjects are American. What she shows us is, that in matters of life and death, the ability to tell one’s story with authenticity from the innermost core of our being is what makes a story powerful and what makes listeners remember. Credentials don’t really matter much when it comes to storytelling because we all struggle with the complexity of our humanness. In Let Me Down Easy, a grieving mother captures and holds our attention as well or better does than a multi-credentialed doctor who heads a children’s hospital.
Smith employed her consummate listening and editing skills to craft these embodiments. Since each embodiment explores a facet of our complicated humanness, her first task was deciding who of the 320 interviewees she would use and then deciding what, of the earfuls she was given, she would extract and embody in a roughly 5 minute segment. We all know that often what we’re hearing on the surface is not the full story but that accompanying fluff is what makes each of us unique. To work her magic, Smith needs to unpack each individual from outside in. Studying with a linguistics coach for years has helped her to master the fine art of inserting herself in other people’s words.
Smith uses a single identifying item–a scarf, a hat, a pair of glasses, a coat—like an artist uses a line. She suggests form and the rest is all vocal and dramatic magic. The stage design is minimal—there’s a huge white leather couch, a white coffee table, a white dining room table with chairs and a backdrop of several large hanging mirrors which allow us to observe Smith from all angles. It’s amazing how rapidly she moves from one character to another, tossing the coat or scarf aside and donning an entirely new identity. Her voice doesn’t so much mimic as it does inflect the character she is embodying and her gestures follow through.
The first third or so of the show addresses the body and the innate drive of athletes to drain their tank completely in competition. A crotch scratching impatient Lance Armstrong talks about beating cancer and rodeo bull rider Brent Williams talks about his brush with death and hospitalization.
As playwright and activist Eve Ensler, Smith tells us what’s wrong with today’s young girls–their lack of connection to their sexuality–and then walks us through her quest to “be in her vagina” and thus in her feminine power. Amidst uproarious laughter, every woman in the room also knows how deadly right on this sketch is.
As gap-toothed American supermodel and actress Lauren Hutton, she smokes a cigarette and then explains how Revlon founder Charles Revson, hooked her up with the best doctors in New York and how she is very intimidated by what doctors actually do.
As Susan Youens, considered to the world’s leading scholar on Franz Schubert, she explains very eloquently what death meant to Schubert. Especially poignant is a later enactment with a South African orphanage director who recalls a child’s death and how she counsels other AID’s inflicted children. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, she gives a heart-wrenching account of the shameful way that poor patients were abandoned by the system as and left for days in a hospital without any services.
Anna Deavere Smith conceived, wrote, and performs Let Me Down Easy. Leonard Foglia directs the show. Riccardo Hernandez designed the sets, Ann Hould-Ward designed the costumes, Dan Ozminkowski did the lighting, Ryan Rumery did the sound, Zachary Borovay is the production designer, Joshua Redman created the musical elements, and Joseph Smelser is the stage manager.
Let Me Down Easy closes July 10, 2011. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is located at 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Tickets: $49-$95. Info: 510.647.2949 or http://www.berkeleyrep.org
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