“ANAÏS: An Erotic Evening with Anaïs Nin” ; Written and Directed by Michael Phillips; Starring Sonia Maslovskaya
From now until Oct. 16 at the Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601. For directions and ticket information, click here. For futher details about the play itself from its official web site, click here.
Guest review by Sarah B. Burghauser
“ANAÏS: An Erotic Evening with Anaïs Nin” is a fictional imagining of what might have happened during one summer weekend in 1954, which Nin apparently does not document in her Diary: writer and director of ANAÏS, Michael Phillips, imagines that Nin (played by Sonia Maslovskaya, the lone actor in this one-woman show) is called to visit June Mansfield Miller in an Arizona psychiatric hospital. While there, she attempts to seduce the doctor under whose care June recovers from her suicide attempt, and communicates with Henry Miller from across a great distance as if he were standing right before her. The three other characters in the play (June, Henry, and the doctor), rather than being physically present on stage, are conjured in the imagination of the audience through Phillips’ writing and through the gaze and gestures of Maslovskaya.
It is shocking—and even a bit disturbing—the weight this one weekend has in Phillips’ overall impressions of Nin’s life. What is fact and what is fabrication already stands as a contentious matter in Nin scholarship. While the show makes explicit from the start the fictional nature of this story, making work that directly addresses this theme is audacious (and perhaps also a little refreshing) despite the presumptuousness toward which creative work on Nin often tends. Biographical accuracy notwithstanding, because Nin is a lover of theater and all things dramatic, a play seems a fitting form for this comment regarding fact/fiction to take.
Of course, we can never know whether Nin herself would have found this show to be amusing, flattering, insulting, or what have you. We can only imagine—and imagination is the key ingredient in this show—whether or not these representations of Nin do justice to her fearless and utterly unapologetic way of living.
Red light illuminates a corner of the stage where a chair, small wooden desk, and glass of water wait at the beginning of the show. The Sherry Theater in North Hollywood, being a small space, lends itself to a feeling of intimacy—the audience seems to huddle in the seats, which are so close to the stage we could all but extend our desirous hand for the player to touch.
But while the physical space of the theater evokes intimacy—a sense which stems from close proximity, a magnified need to reach out, to touch and to be touched—the show itself cannot sustain this intimacy and instead vacillates between fostering a feeling of connectivity (or at least the possibility of connectivity) and isolation. Throughout the show Nin fidgets inside the confines of an invisible encasement—the encasement of her past, her memory, her desire—without the ability to connect with actual people (arguably, aside from the audience).
On one hand, the absence of other bodies on stage seems to make space for audience members to fit themselves into the narrative of the show and into Nin’s world. On the other hand, because of her encasement, the audience watches Nin struggle and perform a kind of insanity, attempting to make contact with other people in vain. This futility is characteristic of so many critics’ and fans’ attempts to connect with Nin through her writing.
I use the word “insanity” here very deliberately not just because the play is set in a psychiatric hospital. While we are told Nin is called there to visit June, a resident of the hospital after her attempted suicide, watching Nin bounce around the confines of the stage, literally talking to herself for forty-five minutes straight, throughout the course of the show the audience is taught that it is not June, but rather it is Nin herself who is crazy. Nin chats with the invisible doctor as if in casual confession as she recalls her past exploits with June and Henry, and laments the insufferable complicity and indecision of her husband, Hugo.
One cannot ignore the problem of setting this show—about a woman artist who has been so vehemently indicted for being a calculating, mind-game-playing, femme fatale, a snake—in a nut house. That this is a one-woman show, wherein Nin stews in her own memories so deeply she hallucinates Henry’s presence, only highlights this glaringly misguided (and some might argue downright offensive) choice, which is sure to drive feminists—at least this feminist—mad. The unintentional misogyny in this aspect of the play exists in the unexamined cultural and historical mores about women writers, what it means to be a “good woman,” and how we define “insanity”; a male writer who goes mad is labeled “tortured genius,” while a woman writer who goes mad is “hysterical.” Furthermore, at the time this weekend supposedly went missing in 1954, Nin would have been 51 years old and—even after her plastic surgery—did not bear the taut-muscles and wrinkle-free fresh-face of Maslovskaya, who played her.
In a post-show interview, Phillips talks about wanting to avoid the common perception of Nin’s life as glamorous by setting the play in an ambient café reminiscent of those in which she spent hours arguing, dreaming, and philosophizing with Henry, Lawrence Durrell, et al. So rather than glamorizing Nin’s life in attempt to avoid a cliché, instead, Phillips frames her as completely off her rocker. And why the cast of one? Phillips expresses his desire to let Nin “speak for herself,” something critics/fans/adversaries don’t normally do. Ironically, it is not Nin speaking at all, but Phillips, a further reiteration of the impossibility of knowing a Truth about Nin and a boon to the critical argument that Nin’s work is “in the eye of the beholder.” In fact, in the show, Nin’s character observes that June does not exist at all, that she only exists in other people’s love for her. Over the course of the show, however, it becomes apparent that this is the very argument Phillips makes about Nin: he positions Nin as June—as insane, as seductive, as heedless—and puts her before a desirous audience in order to make her shudder alive.
It is a risky business making creative work based on Anaïs Nin’s life and writing; an artist who broaches Nin’s life with a creative lens is sure to meet harsh reactions from Nin lovers and critics not necessarily because the work is “good” or “bad,” but rather because Nin herself is the subject with whom critics and lovers contend. The complexities and subtext of this show stem almost exclusively from the choice to have a cast of one, namely in the tendency this show has to seduce the audience into a feeling of intimacy, only to remind us—sometimes gently, sometimes coldly—that Nin can never be truly touched. Within this play, between intimacy and repulsion, is the most accurate reflection of Nin I could imagine. ANAÏS is a valiant attempt even as it requires, at best, a suspension of belief, and at worst, an agreement to suspend your misogyny sensor.