The Valley of Astonishment
Is there a landscape as remote and uncharted as the human brain? The Valley of Astonishment, a new one-act play by 89-year-old writer-director Peter Brook and his long-time collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, explores the lives of three remarkable people who challenge our notion of the limits of that muscle between our ears. (The show plays through Oct. 5 at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center.)
We meet a painter (Jared McNeill) who sees colors whenever he hears sounds and plays jazz in his studio as if dictating what his brain is conjuring. We meet another man (Marcello Magni) who has become paralyzed, without a sense of spatial orientation or proprioperception, but who wills himself to move when he looks at his limbs and concentrates. And most intriguingly, we encounter a woman (the amazing Kathryn Hunter) who has a seemingly bottomless memory by turning words and numbers into mnemonic ”movies” that she can never erase.
If all this sounds like the stuff of Oliver Sacks, you’re right. Brook previously adapted the neurologist’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat for the stage and he has long been interested in the basic functions of the human brain (and the occasional outliers who stretch its limits). The three characters here all have real-life models.
Brook and Estienne prefer spare staging: three actors, two musicians, and a rudimentary set of simple chairs and tables. At times, it can seem like a radio play: The depiction of the color-fixated artist at work, for instance, eschews holograms or projections for a more stylized presentation that depends largely on the audience’s imagination. (How cool would it have been to see what Hunter’s mnemonic whiz says she sees in her head to recall long strings of names?) One might wish that the play had focused solely on Hunter’s character or given more equal time to the other anomalous thinkers. In the end, Valley is less a work of astonishment than of intriguing contemplation. But that proves more than satisfying. B+