I saw *The White Album* at BAM on 11/28/18. I had this conversation a few days before with a friend of mine:
HER: Are you seeing anything this week?
ME: Yes, on Wednesday I'm seeing a show called *The White Album.*
HER: Oh, based on the Beatles album?
ME: No, based on the book by Joan Didion.
HER: But her book is based on the Beatles album.
ME: I'm not sure, but I don't think so.
HER: Well why would she call it *The White Album* unless it was based on the Beatles.
ME: Mother, I can't have this conversation anymore, I'm changing the subject.
The show was directed by and the adaptation done by Lars Jan. Here's the first sentence of his bio in the program: "Lars Jan, the son of emigres from Afghanistan and Poland, is a director, artist, writer, and activist known for visually striking, genre-bending performance and installation works exploring emerging technologies, live gatherings, and unclassifiable experience."
It certainly was visually striking. The architectural design was by P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S Architecture, a beautiful white box with sliding doors at the back of the stage, an abstraction of a mid-century modern California house.
The lighting design was especially stunning, by Andrew Schneider and Chu-hsuan Chang, an interesting mix of flickering, slow fades from one color to another, and super intense, saturated baths of color. I won't soon forget that hot pink.
I suppose this was a genre-bending performance, in the sense that it was a book brought to the stage, but it was basically a play, it didn't really straddle genres or media. Like Terrence McNally's *Master Class* (about Maria Callas giving a master class), it was a one-woman show with other characters. Mia Barron was the woman at the center and she gave a wonderful performance, crackling with intelligence, effortlessly engaging with the audience. Memorization shouldn't be impressive in and of itself, but sometimes it is. She knew basically the whole essay.
The tone is set in the first sentence: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." *The White Album* focuses on Didion's life from 1966 to 1971, she wrote it from 1968 from 1978. It alternates between discussing the events of the time and analyzing them from many years later. She discusses the murder of silent movie star Ramon Navarro, she talks about Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, she attends a recording session by The Doors, she talks quite a lot about the Manson Family murders and the trial. It's a fascinating portrait of that moment in California, specific to Didion's life and experience but relevant to the culture in general. I'm saying this quite a lot lately, but I really need to read the book.
There was one element of the show I didn't quite go for, and that was the "live gatherings" element that Lars Jan warned us about in his bio. They had a group of about twenty people, ages 21 to 30, who were chosen before the performance to sit on the stage and participate in the performance at a few key moments. When I say "sit on the stage," I mean that literally - - they weren't sitting on chairs, it was their butts on the floor. Later in the show they went into the glass house and danced. I didn't feel they added anything to the show.
The ending was beautiful and poignant. We were left with Barron alone on the stage, giving us Didion's summation of the time. She was trying to weave together all of the things that had happened during that period of her time, trying to find connections between things and some sort of greater relevance or meaning. I saw a profound and tender sort of existentialism at work here, a sort of willing surrender. The supposed connections are meaningless. The intellect is not a comfort. The process is futile.
[Photos by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of the BAM Press Office.]