By David Stallings; Directed by Antonio Minino
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Works and Goode Productions
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 10.29.16
The Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street
by Ran Xia on 10.19.16
Mel House, Amanda Jones, and Nylda Mark in Anaïs Nin Goes To Hell. Photo by Jody Christopherson.
BOTTOM LINE: An exploration of the female psyche through self-examinations of iconic female figures including Cleopatra, Karen Carpenter, and many more, led by Anaïs Nin.
David Stallings' version of hell is an archipelago surrounded by dark waters. At her own request, Anaïs Nin (Amanda Jones) is sent to an island where no men will follow. The island's current inhabitants are five women, each in futile expectation of her man's arrival: Princess Andromeda (Mlé Chester) of Ethiopia awaits Perseus; her BFF, Sister Heloise (Mel House) awaits Peter Abélard; Queen Victoria (Madalyn McKay) awaits her Albert; and Joan of Arc (Stephanie Willing) awaits Jesus (no surprise there). Finally, there is Cleopatra (Nylda Mark), who claims that she has the power to conjure any man to the island (which doesn't turn out to be completely true). Karen Carpenter's voice (Hannah Seusy) is also heard from a neighboring island.
Anaïs Nin's arrival disrupts the purgatorial, but nevertheless harmonious, posthumous existence of the women. Anaïs starts to influence the women with her tales of adventures, her bohemian ways, her erotica, and her belief in being an independent woman. Commenting on both the women's past lives and their current existence in hell, Anaïs remarks that "Loneliness is just another man you cannot lean on."
One of the most intriguing and exciting moments happens between Anaïs and Cleopatra, neither of whom is ashamed of their sexual desires—as Cleopatra puts it, "Sex is the lack of thought, and the focus of action." The two becomes fast friends, and engage in a Bechdel-type game where they set a timer to forbid themselves from talking about any man. But men ultimately remain the focus of the women's existence, and at the end of act one, Cleopatra uses her power to conjure a man. But much to the women's disappointment, the man who arrives (another historical figure) immediately starts looking for another man the moment he sets foot ashore.
The women soon decide to repair Anaïs' raft and set out to look for their men instead of waiting. Desperate to keep her allies, Anaïs reveals that she has been to the island of great men, where Henry Miller also currently resides. "They fight." said Anaïs in tears, attempting to make Cleopatra understand the futility of being a man's accessory as opposed to living as a woman of her own purpose. By the play's end, some have left the island to seek their loves, and those who have remained welcome the arrival of Frida Kahlo, who claims that "there are more of us."
Amongst the stellar cast, Amanda Jones stands out as Anaïs Nin; Jones is tender with a touch of deviousness, and masterfully encompasses Nin's eccentricity and beauty. Hannah Seusy plays Karen Carpenter, Ophelia (in the play's ethereal and looming prologue), and Frida Kahlo. A versatile actress and an apt singer, Seusy breathes distinct life into each of her roles. Nylda Mark's Cleopatra is regal and mischievous, as she finds the "perfect shade of red" upon Anaïs' arrival.
Blair Mielnik's set creates an eerie environment that perfectly complements the style of the play. Izzy Fields' costume design is the perfect marriage of historical accuracy and theatrical representation. Martha Goode's sound design is impressive without being overpowering: as newfound romance blooms between two characters, we hear the faint sound of heartbeats, an effective addition to the emotional experience.
Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell is an intellectually charged play with the potential to be a masterpiece on the awakening of feminism. One must applaud the amount of research and dramaturgical work that has gone into this story. The fellowship formed between these iconic females of history or myth, as well as the Beckettian hell they are bound to, reveals traces of Godot and possibly Travesties. Literary references hidden throughout the play allow the well-informed chuckles of understanding, but this play is never archaic or obscure to the point of self-indulgence.
Playwright David Stallings certainly has a way with capturing the essence of his characters. However, although an admirable attempt to send a feminist message—Anaïs Nin helps the women explore their self-worth—the play spends much time displaying the characters' vulnerabilities and how they are defined by the men they await. While Anaïs convinces some women, and Karen Carpenter eventually sings different, more self-assured lyrics, the final resolution is a bit hasty, and leaves some characters uncertain about the future. But of course, the re-awaking of the independent female psyche was never promised to be instantaneous—as if all one needed to do was read a page from Nin's Delta of Venus. The complexity of this play results in an almost painfully honest fantasia of strong female figures in the underworld.
(Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell plays at The Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, through October 29, 2016. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $15 - $18 and are available at 14streety.org or by calling 646-395-4310.)
Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell is by David Stallings. Directed by Antonio Minino. Scenic Design is by Clair Mielnik. Costume Design is by Izzy Fields. Lighting Design is by Daniel Gallagher. Sound Design is by Martha Goode. Stage Manager is Rachel Denise April.
The cast is James Edward Becton, Mlé Chester, Mel House, Amanda Jones, Richard Lindenfelzer, Nylda Mark, Madalyn McKay, Hannah Seusy, and Stephanie Willing.