Attempts on Her Life is a mixed success
By Martin Crimp. Directed by Katrina Dunn. A Studio 58 production. At Studio 58 on Saturday, September 29. Continues until October 14
Reading the program is one of the best parts. There, in her notes, director Katrina Dunn says, “Attempts [on Her Life] manifests postmodernism’s resistance to the uniformity of coherent narrative.” She says that playwright Martin Crimp “suggests that coherent identity is a myth…and shows us the process of language constructing social power and defining reality.”
It’s true. In this 15-year-old script, Crimp assigns no characters; he simply indicates a change of speakers by inserting a dash. (The script has been performed by as few as three actors. Here, there are 15.) The central character, Anne, never appears, nor does a stable depiction of her identity emerge. In the 17 largely unrelated scenes, Anne is everything from an artist who documents her suicide attempts to a new car: the Anny. Characters share their narratives about Anne, but, in doing so, they are creating their own realities.
Crimp regularly reminds us that we are looking through the lens of a camera. And the play’s critique of consumerism—including the consumption of images—is apparent. Anne isn’t just a car; she is also a prostitute who vainly tries to justify her self-exploitation as a form of liberation. In an age in which words and images—tools for understanding—are so thoroughly manipulated for profit, how could we possibly know ourselves? There’s another kind of porn, too, the pornography of political violence. Here, that is grimly satirized with descriptions of incestuous rape during a period of civil collapse.
So, yes, Attempts on Her Life is an excellent subject for an essay. But how helpful is it as a blueprint for performance? Or, more to the point: how is an audience member supposed to get into it?
Crimp mocks the notion of empathy, so he’s not opening any easy emotional doors. He also eschews sustained narrative in Attempts, so there’s none of that tension to hold on to—unlike in some of Caryl Churchill’s plays, including Ice Cream, in which she exposes narrative expectations by subverting them. Attempts feels primarily like an intellectual exercise, but, even on that front, it’s smart but not surprising: everything I got out of it is familiar to me.
What’s left, among other things, is style. David Roberts’s set, which turns Studio 58 into a purgatory of a waiting room, has style in spades. Using the light of cellphones, Dunn and her team create some superb visual passages. And the student actors sometimes charm—I’m thinking of a perky Portuguese-speaking spokesmodel (Katey Hoffman) and an innocent flight attendant (Arthur MacKinnon), for instance. And thanks partly to the inventive efforts of choreographer Kathleen McDonagh, the car commercial works.
But Dunn subverts her stylistic successes by encouraging her young cast to play everything big. It feels like the director is always commenting on the material—talking in a loud voice, as it were. That may make the text feel flatter than it is.