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  • Writer's pictureladiesvoices

*Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,* 5/1/19

I saw *Norma Jeane Baker of Troy* at The Shed on 5/1/19. It’s a play by Anne Carson with music by Paul Clark. The Shed is a brand new performance space in Hudson Yards, a new neighborhood in the west 30s. I’d never been to this part of town before and was eager to check it out. I passed The Vessel on my way there, which an architect friend of mine said is “shaping up to be the most panned public art project of this and of the last millennia.” That’s an achievement in itself, don’t you think?

I had some difficulty finding the theater, but I did find my way and still had plenty of time before the show started, or even before they let us upstairs to the theater. I checked out the bookstore (stocked with books relating to the shows they were presenting, very clever), and the mid-century modern bar (lovely Scandinavian furniture)...

...and the bathroom, which a friend of a friend would describe as “cold, hard, and CHIC.”

A friend from high school turned me onto the bathroom mirror selfie. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, don’t you think?

Finally we were let upstairs. The whole flock of us went up three very tall levels of escalators. I had bought my ticket online and printed it out. I waited my turn and watched the pretty young usherette blipping people in. “Hello, thank you.” <blip!> “Hello, welcome to The Shed.” <blip!> “Good evening, enjoy the show.” <blip!>

Here’s what happened when it was my turn.

HER: Hello, thank you.


HER: Hm, I haven’t heard that before. Let me try again.


HER: That’s very strange. Is it a problem with…?

ME: I probably have the confirmation on my phone ,would that work better?

HER: Oh yes, I’m sure that would work fine. No one is using paper tickets, that’s so funny that you did that.

So I went off to the side, found the confirmation in my email, and presented her with my phone.


HER: Tee hee. Let me just try it one more time.


HER: Um, maybe you should…. Maybe you should go talk with, um, him?

And she motioned over to a guy I assumed was the house manager? He was standing at a sort of rolling desk with a laptop. I handed him my paper ticket, showed him my phone, and he said, “No, the paper ticket will work fine, thank you very much.” He looked at my ticket, looked at the seating map on the laptop, keyed in a few random things, and wrote a five-digit number on my ticket. “Give that to her and tell her to key in the five-digit number. It’ll work fine.”

I thanked him and walked back over to her. I handed her my ticket.

ME: He said for you to…


ME: Please don’t scan the code again. He said for you to key in the five-digit code.

HER: Oh, I didn’t see that. OK… Great.


HER: Let me try it one more time, I probably keyed it in wrong.


HER: [a lost, silent sort of smile]

ME: I don’t understand what’s going on. You can see from my ticket that I purchased a ticket for May 1st at 7:30 PM. I’m in seat N 12. I don’t understand why you can’t just let me in.

HER: Oh no, I couldn’t do that. We have to scan you in in order to get an accurate head count.

ME: Let me guess, I should go talk to him again.

HER: Yes, please.

You can hear my tone of voice, right? I was really getting fed up. I went back over to the house manager and he could tell that it was time to somehow make it work. He borrowed the blip machine from another usher, keyed in a few things, and walked me over to my primary usherette, told her I was all set, she did NOT need to scan my ticket. She smiled at me wanly. i met her smile by saying, “Could I have a program, please.”

Not an auspicious start for a theatrical experience.

The theater was bigger than I expected, though the stage itself was not so big. The seats were VERY comfortable, and there was ample leg room. Not roomy, but ample.

The play takes place in 1964. It starts off being about a man who goes to his office and calls in a stenographer to take dictation for his translation of an ancient Greek text about Helen of Troy. Ben Wishaw played the writer, Renée Fleming played the stenographer.

The premise was disposed of pretty quickly and it became more abstract. It became about the man’s fixation with Marilyn Monroe. He imagined her playing Helen of Troy. Eventually we had the pleasure of seeing HIM playing Monroe - - I fell asleep for a few minutes (though who really knows how long) early in the show and woke up to see Wishaw in an off-white satin bustier. He looked pretty good in it. Later he slipped some butt pads into his girdle. Eventually he put on the iconic white halter dress and only at the end of the show did he put on the blonde wig.

Fleming’s singing annoys me - - sometimes glorious, often sickening. She over-inflects the vocal line, it’s indulgent and gets in the way of the music, her singing becomes about her and not about the music. There were a few moments when the composer gave her something challenging to sing and that was always fabulous because she had to sing it straight and couldn’t give it the full Fleming treatment. My favorite moment of her singing was a sequence where it appeared she was singing along with a jingle on the radio. The jingle itself was cute and her treacly pop style was perfect.

The score was a fascinating mixture of pre-recorded music (much of it Fleming’s own vocals) layered over and around Fleming singing live. At times it was hard to tell exactly what you were hearing, I always like that. The vocal writing was idiomatic, and it exploited her range. I should mention she was amplified, which I’m sure was necessary to get the right mix with the pre-recorded music. The best thing about her performance was that she really gave herself to the experience, she really was all in, she really seemed to believe in it.

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