“Being intelligent isn’t, for me, like doing something ‘better,’” Susan Sontag once wrote. “It’s the only way I exist . . .’’
That the life of the mind was life itself for Sontag is made abundantly clear in “Sontag: Reborn,’’ a fascinating solo show starring Moe Angelos, with direction by Marianne Weems, that has arrived at the Emerson/Paramount Center Mainstage.
Though it chronicles events in her personal life and early academic career, “Sontag: Reborn’’ is, at bottom, an exploration of a consciousness and a sensibility — which could be pretty deadly if the subject were not as bracingly original as she was.
Make that “is,’’ thanks to the remarkable performance by Angelos, a one-woman force field whose intensity compels our attention as the actress channels Sontag in all her restless, omnivorous, arrogant, spiky individuality. An essayist, critic, novelist, and general provocateur, Sontag died in 2004 after decades of stirring the pot, aesthetically and politically.
“Sontag: Reborn,’’ a production by the Builders Association, is the second powerful solo show about a multifaceted woman at ArtsEmerson in the past month, following on the heels of “The Wholehearted,’’ in which Suli Holum portrayed a fictional prizefighter with a score to settle. As with that production — and as with the Builders Association’s “House/Divided,’’ co-written by Angelos, directed by Weems, and recently seen at ArtsEmerson — video adds a crucial extra dimension to “Sontag: Reborn.’’
Adapted by Angelos from Sontag’s published journals, “Sontag: Reborn’’ tracks the writer’s life only up to the mid-1960s, when she burst to prominence with “Notes on Camp,’’ but the mature Sontag is nonetheless a strong presence in the show. Austin Switser’s superb video design enables Angelos and Weems to present a double-sided portrait.
Seated at a long table on which sits a typewriter, the actress plays Sontag as a pony-tailed teenager and as a young woman, while the older Sontag, also portrayed by Angelos, is seen in a large, pre-recorded video that is perfectly synchronized to the live action. Her hair swept across her forehead in that familiar style, smoking cigarettes, the mature Sontag looks appraisingly and sometimes quizzically at her younger self, speaking some journal entries aloud and occasionally offering a few words of commentary.
More images flow across a scrim that is situated near the front of the stage, while a video screen upstage captures real-time fragments of Angelos’s actions. That might sound overly busy, but there’s a unity to the imagery. They flow into and complement one another, and a heavily visual approach makes sense when depicting an author who wrote so incisively about photography and film.
Not that the words are shortchanged. On the contrary. As the production dramatizes Sontag’s intellectual development, polysyllabic paragraphs spill out of Angelos in relentless, mostly compelling but sometimes exhausting, torrents. Sontag’s journal entries also unfold onscreen in white letters. (On one level, “Sontag: Reborn’’ is a digital-age celebration of the culture of the book.)
The production begins with Sontag as an astonishingly precocious, driven, and focused 15-year-old, newly awakened to what she calls her “lesbian tendencies.’’ She is aflame with lists of literary classics she must read and thoughts and experiences that she has to get down on paper. A typical entry: “Immersed myself in Gide all afternoon and listened to the Busch recording of ‘Don Giovanni.’ Several arias (such soul-searching sweetness!) I played over and over again. . . . If I could always hear them how resolute and serene I would be!’’
But serenity proves elusive in the ensuing years — not that Angelos’s Sontag really seems to crave it as she journeys through academia (as an undergraduate, then a graduate student, and finally a college instructor). She reenacts a youthful visit with the imposing Thomas Mann and describes her sojourns in San Francisco and Greenwich Village and Paris, along with the people she met along the way, like Allen Ginsberg. She falls into an unhappy marriage to a sociologist named Philip Rieff that produces a son, David, before ending in divorce; copes with loss and a negative New York Times review of her first novel; and discovers intimacy and sensuality in love affairs with women, including the playwright Maria Irene Fornes.
Always there are copious lists of films and plays she has seen and concerts she has attended. Always there are books she wants, plans, needs to read. Always there is the sense of a woman grappling with ideas as she consumes all that culture, of a questing intellect that cannot rest, ever.