Original Review is published in Theatre Is Easy
By Arthur Miller; Directed by Rubén Polendo
Produced by Theater Mitu
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 7.23.17
BAM's Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place
BOTTOM LINE: Theatre Mitu transforms Death of a Salesman into a spectacular avant-garde production.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is considered by many to be the great American play. Revived countless times on stage, it has also been successfully adapted into television and film. That being said, Theater Mitu manages to reinterpret thus canonical work into something wholly unique and utterly fascinating by using techniques of experimental and absurdist theatre, combined with elements of classic Japanese mask and puppetry.
After actors Justin Nestor and Kayla Asbell (playing Willy and Linda Loman respectively) turn to each other and don their melted-face masks, their posture drops, their voices slow, and they move with great physical anguish throughout the minimalist set. The effects of old age upon the mind, body, and spirit is particularly devastating when contrasted with the frenetic versions of themselves during flashback sequences, when the masks are removed.
In this production, the actors are rarely without their Object, a main prop that functions as a type of representational spirit animal. Naturally, Willy carries a broken and battered salesman suitcase, while his dutiful wife Linda has a parasol, an accessory which provides shade, yet is of little use during a storm. Their eldest son Biff, played by a moving Corey Sullivan, carries around the football shoulder pads from his youth, perfectly evoking his glory days which continue to weigh him down emotionally.
These Objects prove to be more than mere props for the actors, as other objects actively replace human actors throughout the production. Loose women are portrayed as fans which blow nothing but hot air, while wealthy authority figures are played by different types of clinical and commercial light fixtures. This is all done through traditional Japanese Bunraku theatre, where puppeteers clad in black with covered faces control the physicality of their creations, while pre-recorded lines reverberate through the theatre’s speakers as a form of voiceover. Happy, the hapless and insincere younger Loman brother, is an exception, played by actor-puppeteer Denis Butkus. Butkus is also covered in black, but speaks live lines through a headset from behind his appropriately representational Object, a punching bag.
These avant-garde elements create a distinct and stylized universe, which would not be successful without the expert skill of director Rubén Polendo and his incredibly talented cast. Justin Nestor, Kayla Asbell, and Corey Sullivan each nail the changing physicality and vocal ranges of their characters though different decades. Nestor is particularly effective in his portrayal of Willy, awkwardly speak-singing through the more wistful passages only to disarm the audience with his melodious voice during flashbacks with an exuberance and charm reminiscent of Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. This stark contrast makes it clear that years of failure does far more than age the body—it also dims the spirit until it is a poor imitation of its youth. Willy’s deterioration is made all the more pitiable by Polendo’s choice to have Willy physically present on stage while his family talks ill of him and laments his existence. Willy, just out of earshot, painstakingly crawls towards a floor light representing the many fixtures of wealth and success in his life, a light and goal he will never be able to reach.
Supporting the production is a brilliant team, including costume designer Candida K. Nichols, who dresses Willy in an oversized suit with chalked on pinstripes, making Willy appear as diminished as he feels, and as fake as his son Biff knows him to be. Ada Westfall is particularly impressive as a live one-woman band who accompanies the production, often playing several instruments at the same time, including the piano, drums, and kazoo.
Nearly sixty years after its debut, Death of a Salesman still resonates deeply. This arresting production by Theater Mitu artfully brings the Loman family back to where they have always belonged, their hometown of Brooklyn. On stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Willy’s funeral is poorly attended, a great irony considering that scores of theatergoers continue to commemorate him with the type of consideration he never received, but always deserved, as one of the most memorable characters in American theatre history.
(Death of a Salesman plays at BAM's Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place, through July 23, 2017. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8; Sunday at 5. Tickets are $25 general admission, $15 students, and are available at artful.ly/mitu. For more information visit theatermitu.org.)
Death of a Salesman is by Arthur Miller. Directed by Rubén Polendo. Associate Director is Scott Spahr. Producer is Jimmy Walden. Puppeteer is Attilio Rigotti, Assistant Puppeteer is Xiao Quan. Original Music is by Ellen Reid. Live Score is by Ada Westfall. Set Design is by Rubén Polendo and Kate Ashton. Scenic Collaborator is Leighton Mitchell. Costume Design is Candida K. Nichols. Sound Design is by Alex Hawthorn. Assistant Sound Design is Camille Michelotti. Lighting Design is by Kate Ashton. Assisting Lighting Design is Jake Fine. Object Design is by Scott Spahr. Object Design Collaborator is Sanaz Ghajar. Mask Design is by Lori Petermann. Dramaturgy is by Chris Mills. Producer is Jimmy Walden. Production Supervisor is Lizzy Lee. Production Manager is Alex Hawthorn.
The cast is Justin Nestor, Kayla Asbell, Corey Sullivan, and Denis Butkus.