x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Theatre puts new face on Arthur Miller's classic play

Death of a Salesman gets revamped for a short Abu Dhabi theatre run.

Justin Nestor as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Courtesy of NYU
Justin Nestor as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Courtesy of NYU

Centre stage, the burly actor playing Biff Loman is squaring up in a heated dispute with a leather punch bag that purports be his brother, Happy.

This abstract scene is but one of the deviations from the norm in this unorthodox production of Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller's 1949 play about a New York travelling vendor's descent into suicidal despair - which is midway through its short run in Abu Dhabi.

For this production, director Rubén Polendo has radically revamped almost every aspect of Miller's time-honoured, Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway classic. To start with, some of the characters are portrayed by household objects - a bright, dynamic boss is a fluorescent light bulb, while a solid, sturdy neighbour is a refrigerator door - manipulated by puppeteers. The actors are furnished with Balinese-style, wrinkled masks to disguise the fact that young people are playing characters in their 60s.

These masks are discarded during the play's numerous flashbacks as the actors become exaggerated, over-elated, almost absurd caricatures, attempting to emphasise the disparity between their dark present and the optimistic idealism of earlier years.

Meanwhile, during his soliloquies, Willy continually bursts into disjointed melodies, adding a haunting element to Miller's poetic eulogies to the fallacies of the American Dream.

Death of a Salesman is being produced by Theater Mitu, a New York company that has forged links with the UAE since Polendo, its artistic director and founder, was appointed as an associate professor at NYU Abu Dhabi. This show follows an earlier open-air production of Chaos, an original piece that explored themes of migration and belonging.

Despite the experimental nature of his new production, Polendo contends that it won't bewilder its audience.

He says: "It is a radical take on it, and I'm sure some people will say, 'what has he done to this play?' But once you get used to the concepts we use, you'll eventually realise that it's still just about two old people and the pain they're going through. And also you see something happening to this man that's emotional, incomprehensible, beautiful and strange. So you won't need to have studied your Butoh [a restrained Japanese physical vocabulary employed by the actors] or your Balinese masks to appreciate it.

"Chaos dealt with the idea of the traveller, the worker and migration. We wanted to continue this conversation in a more focussed way, in relation to the worker, the labourer and the family. In essence, we're now looking inside the home."

Polendo goes on to explain the thought process behind using puppets: "It's about creating an even more central focus on the family, who are played by real actors, while the population around them are manipulated and puppeteered, so you create an emotional landscape for the actors in an incredibly cold world.

"Having a fluorescent light bulb for Willy's boss, Howard, means he becomes an everyman, outside of nationality, gender and race. So it's really about taking the iconic description of these characters and manifesting the metaphor in a literal way, and then, of course, puppeteering them in a way so that it has some life."

Julianna Bloodgood, who plays Willy's long-suffering, downtrodden wife, feels this has particular relevance in Abu Dhabi.

"There are many times when I interact with someone in my own life, [and] I feel afterwards I interacted with them as their function. Such as a worker, or a boss or someone in a store," she explains.

"There is obviously humanity behind what they are, but you just interact with their title or their function. So on stage, we are interacting with a cold, inanimate object, which kind of represents this lack of connection."

Above all, Polendo feels Miller would approve of this interpretation of his masterpiece.

"When plays become important, in a way they become enshrined, and that enshrinement is what kills the play and loses it its heart," he argues. "This play was not written to be a masterpiece - it was a really brilliant author trying to explore these issues of family, love and ageing. So when Miller wrote it, I would argue, it was alive and it had a pulse and it had a heart.

"After many, many years ... people are afraid to mess with it. Whereas, in fact, Miller rewrote this play many times, he changed its name, he turned it upside down. And so we are following this model. So, sure, it's unprecedented, but I feel it's what we should do. We are, in fact, revering the text and I'm sure Miller would approve of it."

And Polendo asserts that in these downbeat financial times, the play is even more relevant.

"Of course, we can't refract from the contemporary situation, both economically and politically. But I think we try and go beyond this. At the heart of the play lays Arthur Miller's words and work, and at the heart of that lays his intent, which is to export tragedy. It harks back to the Greek tragedies, whose pivotal idea is a reduction of the world at large. So there is a kind of universality of it," he contends.

"When you approach the play, it opens up a larger Greek tragedy-esque part of it, so it kind of becomes an everyman story outside of culture or time or particulars."

Polendo believes that another of the play's central themes, that of transience, is incredibly relevant to Abu Dhabi. When Biff reappears at the family home after some time away working on a farm, rather than being welcomed home as a prodigal son, he is castigated by his father for his restless, migratory lifestyle.

Polendo says: "Miller uses the return of Biff to explore the breakdown of the father and family. The play uses that landscape as a literal and metaphorical explanation of the idea of returning home. It's all about the idea of hope, expectations and dreams, and what happens to those dreams.

"You know, it's a warning tale, but it's also a tale of hope. I think that's key to a good tragedy, in that it propenses this dark world but this is ultimately to shed light. So I hope my play makes an impact. I hope the questions it asks are not heard, but felt. And I hope the world we create makes a memory."

The play is most definitely memorable, but its elaborate devices may prove disconcerting to traditionalists or those not familiar with the vernacular of the art form. However, by later acts you will have become accustomed to these constructs and the sight of a real person in deep conversation with a fridge door will seem almost commonplace.

Praise is also due to the actors, especially Justin Nestor as the lead, whose visceral performance effectively depicts the frailties of Willy's mind as his career and family disintegrate around him. So in a city where there are slim pickings for theatre fans, those prepared to leave their preconceptions at home should find it an edifying experience.

Death of a Salesmanruns at NYU Abu Dhabi Downtown Campus, Al Nasr Street, tonight and tomorrow starting at 8pm. Entry is free, but pre-registration is essential at www.nyuad.nyu.edu