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In ‘Sontag: Reborn,’ the writer’s toughest critic is herself

Moe Angelos as young Susan Sontag (and as an older Sontag on a scrim above) in the Builders Association’s “Sontag: Reborn.”

JAMES GIBBS

Moe Angelos as young Susan Sontag (and as an older Sontag on a scrim above) in the Builders Association’s “Sontag: Reborn.”

NEW YORK — In “Sontag: Reborn,” Moe Angelos’s vivid performance as the late writer and critic Susan Sontag contains many of the hallmarks we often associate with her: the famous skunk stripe sweeping through her jet-black mane; the insouciant way she clutched a cigarette between her fingers, puffing away with an often inscrutable expression; the aura of intellectual gravitas and stridency that intimidated others.

The show, which opens Tuesday at the Emerson/Paramount Center Mainstage in a presentation by ArtsEmerson, is drawn from the text of Sontag’s published journals, which span from 14 to her early 30s, when she was beginning to establish herself as an author.

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But in fashioning a portrait of this literary and cultural icon, Angelos, the show’s writer and performer, and Marianne Weems, its director, knew they wanted to avoid the theatrical cliches of the one-person show.

“Neither Moe nor I wanted it to be like ‘Vanessa Redgrave does Susan Sontag.’ It wasn’t about Moe imitating Susan. Or me saying, ‘Why don’t you raise your eyebrow like she used to?’ ” says Weems, over the phone from Pittsburgh, where she’s wrapping up her tenure as the head of the graduate directing program at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. “The one-person show is pretty careworn at this point in the early 21st century. If you use that form, I think it then automatically becomes more biographical and less like a piece of dynamic theater that has real tension.”

Not that you would expect anything less from Weems’s Obie-winning experimental theater company, the Builders Association — renowned for creating boundary-stretching work that saturates audiences in a hypnotic milieu of intertwined video projections, elaborate onstage architecture, and immersive sound design. In “House/Divided,” which was performed in Boston in January, the Builders wove together “The Grapes of Wrath” with tales from the contemporary mortgage crisis.

Over coffee at a small Brooklyn cafe, Angelos says she also felt she lacked the kind of magnetism a performer needs to command the stage alone for the entirety of a show. “I just didn’t feel like I could pull it off. So I tried to think, how can I have a one-person show with not only one person?”

The answer was found in the Builders’ unique aesthetic. In the show, largely adapted from the first volume of Sontag’s journals (“Reborn,” 2008), with some material from the second volume “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh” (2012), Angelos embodies Sontag as a precocious young woman, wracked with overflowing passions but also self-doubt. We see her seated at a desk piled high with books while scribbling away in her journals or standing as she addresses the audience with weary resignation and spiky wit. She muses on her anxieties, her vaulting ambitions, and her sexual awakening.

An elder version of Sontag (1933-2004), also played by Angelos, hovers above the action in a ghostly, black-and-white video projection, glancing down on her younger self with a mix of amusement, irritation, and wonder. The projected older Sontag chain-smokes, flips through old journals, and interjects knowing commentary.

“It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence,” the young Sontag says.

“There are too few of them anyway,” laments her older self.

The idea for the spectral elder Sontag was inspired directly from the diaries, Angelos says. “She had the habit of going back and rereading her journals and then annotating [comments] in the margins.”

“Because writing is a very internal process, the question became how do we animate that theatrically?” Weems says. For the answer, she turned to video designer Austin Switser, sound designer Dan Dobson, and the other members of her creative team. A live feed of Sontag’s desktop is rear-projected behind Angelos on stage, and audiences see her penning some passages in her diaries. There’s also a transparent scrim in front where an array of images is streamed.

The Builders’ own theatrical vocabulary echoes Sontag’s argument for an aesthetic approach to the study of culture, championing style over content. “We have a very specific language in the company, and it has to do with using media as a kind of expression, almost like an emotional or psychological state,” Weems says. “So the show ends up being a dialogue between Moe and the design in a very deep way — the way the Builders think about design, which is kind of expressionistic and not just as scenery.”

For Angelos, an ensemble member of the Builders for 15 years, the show tries to give a glimpse into Sontag’s psyche and consciousness as she’s confiding her innermost thoughts and fears, yearning for new experiences and sensations, testing her arguments and theories, and molding herself into the woman she would become — all within the pages of her journal.

“We tried to stage her mind at work, her mental process, in some small way,” says Angelos, who has Sontag’s thick black hair and mournful eyes, but little trace of her sometimes aloof and combative streak.

Despite Sontag’s stature as an intellectual powerhouse, the idea of inventing yourself, Weems says, is a universal story. “Everyone struggles to become that thing they want to be in life. Susan wrote a lot about ‘the will’ and willing herself to become a writer and an intellectual and gaining a public position. So that theme became one of the engines driving the show.”

“Sontag: Reborn,” which premiered at the Under the Radar Festival in New York in 2012, has a special resonance for Weems in particular. Sontag had been a mentor and friend to the Builders Association artistic director when Weems was first starting the company back in the mid-1990s. The two women attended the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center artists’ retreat in Italy to work on a theater piece. While that project never came to fruition, they bonded, and Sontag ended up serving as a board member of the Builders from its inception in 1994 until her death in 2004.

Still, in her role as director of “Sontag: Reborn,” Weems says, she had to distance herself from her intimate connection to the subject. “It was very critical to me and almost necessary that I separate this performance from knowing Susan on a personal level. I did my best not to talk about Susan with my other collaborators.”

When Angelos first read Sontag’s diaries, she was immediately absorbed by the stories of her young life. “She’s like a nerdy teenager — the kind of nerd that I would totally have been friends with in high school. She was passionate about literature and art and her mind, and awkward, of course. But you can see the neurons of her intellect firing.”

As part of her research, Angelos traveled to the Sontag archive at UCLA to pore over her unedited journals and other material. Reading the diaries, Angelos was most surprised by Sontag’s deep vulnerability and self-doubt as a young woman.

“I always think I’m much more of a mess than everybody else thinks,” Angelos says, laughing. “But she was no different. She was completely racked with anxiety about her inner process as a writer. She struggled with her disappointments and pains, and she is very articulate about those as well. I knew the haters were going to come out, because she made enemies. She was polarizing. But many people said, ‘You know, it made me think about her in a different way.’ ”

Weems says other people who knew Sontag think she would have relished the expressionistic form of the show, regardless of its content. “God knows she probably would have quibbled with actually turning her life into a work of art,” Weems says. “But I think that the formal ways that we deliver the piece is pure Sontag, and she would have loved that.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@
gmail.com
.
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