Arts & Events

Theater Review: "Let Me Down Easy"

By Ken Bullock
Monday June 20, 2011 - 10:29:00 AM

"It's a suspicious thing, medicine. It's black magic. It's mojo. And it scares me." 

One of Anna Deavere Smith's interview subjects that she "channels" onstage in Let Me Down Easy, her solo Berkeley Rep performance, sums up an attitude about the professionals "in charge" of health and healing, a single theme of the diverse talk she recycles about the human body, mortality, hope, survival--and perhaps, as it's stated in the program in an interview with her, "a search for grace." 

Smith takes on her subject's words and mannerisms, mostly facing the audience throughout the show, though sometimes facing the hanging mirror--and video screen--panels of Riccardo Hernandez's set, reflected in them, or sitting or reclining, facing away from the house, her face projected onto the panels. 

From Tour De France hero Lance Armstrong to playwright (The Vagina Monologues) Eve Ensler, musicologist and Schubert scholar Susan Youens to supermodel Lauren Hutton, dean of Stanford School of Medicine Philip Pizzo to Savoyard Buddhist monk Mattieu Ricard, film critic Joel Siegel to former Texas governor Ann Richards, Smith's subjects speak through her staged mediumship about moments of near death, of confrontations with mortality, of their own illnesses (several have since died), inspiration and health care. 

"I'm searching for examples of grace that I can share with the audience," Smith told interviewer Gideon Lester. 

Overall, Let Me Down Easy seems very much like past shows of Smith's. She preserves, mostly, the "frontal" format of facing the audience and speaking as the interview subject, as if the audience is the interviewer. There's a sense of the subject being in a frame, like a talking head. The only person who seems to come alive in her own space is Smith's own, engaging aunt. Smith doesn't explore the "switch" of performing the people she's interviewed, except occasionally referring to herself as her subjects must've during the sessions they had together. 

Her mimicry of her subjects--the acting out of the interviews--shows an extremely limited range, tonally and gesturally, with many repetitions of the same tics for different personalities. This may have something to do with attempting to concentrate the audience's attention on what the subject is saying, or her conviction that it's the effort, not the success, of "leaving [herself] and being someone else" that's winning for audiences--though it seems much of the attention is still focused on her, the performer. 

For a full-length show that was developed over a decade, and at some trouble and expense--concerning another show, Smith mentions "her staff" traveling with her for the interviews--the limited artistry in presentation (it was directed by Leonard Foglia) and performance is a little disturbing. 

Audiences like her. Is it because she's a familiar face and voice, pre-sold to some extent by her past successes, truly seen as a live talking head for those familiar with her TV acting? 

Years ago, I began to become aware of a kind of disintegration of the traditional audience for any kind of "spectacle," first when My Dinner With Andre hit the cinemas in 1981 and subsequently at festival jazz concerts. Audiences increasingly didn't react as one collective anymore, but as an aggregate of individual spectators, or collections of "parties" that happened to be partying together in the same space. 

One of the best definitions of the origin of theater and its related performing arts I've heard is Francis Fergusson's "the histrionic impulse," fleshed out--strangely enough--in Roland Barthes' book-length reflection on photography and the human face, Camera Lucida: declaring portrait photography comes more from the tableaux of theater than of painting, Barthes places his version Fergusson's "impulse" at the moment when someone turned from the community, disguised themselves with a mask or make-up as a god or spirit of the dead, then turned back, still apart from the group, to tell it the story of its origin. 

If theater and storytelling really are from a primal human impulse, maybe we have been reduced to a public collection of individuals, not able to bond easily anymore into a collective like an audience in order to react communally to something with dialogue and ensemble movement, but a bunch of individual spectators searching for a lone, sympathetic face that will tell us the news, reassure us that we're human, alive, "current," one of the tribe. 

"Man, you live!" Jaime De Angulo--who once lived in the Berkeley hills, where he sometimes brought his Indian correspondents--said was the greeting of the nomadic Achuwamis in the high desert of Northeastern California when they met up with someone they hadn't seen in awhile. That sign of recognition, in a media saturated world, seems to be what's evoked by Smith's appearances. 

Let Me Down Easy plays Tuesday through Sunday at different times through July 10 at the Rep's Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison (near Shattuck). $29-$73. 647-2949;