Susan Sontag is Reborn in Boston (4.5 Stars)

Sontag: Reborn – Created by The Builders Association.  Adapted and Performed by Moe Angelos.  Directed by Marianne Weems.  Presented by The Builders Association and New York Theatre Workshop at the Emerson/Paramount Center, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA, through May 18.

Before coming to this production, I wasn’t sure what to expect – a one-person show on Susan Sontag?  How would that work?  One person shows are tricky.  I remember my grandmother taking me to see Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst when I was a kid, and as Harris charmingly prattled onstage, letting the audience in like an old friend, I thought ‘No way is this Emily Dickinson.’  “Sontag: Reborn,” based on the books “Reborn” and “As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh” by Susan Sontag and edited by her son, David Rieff, does not have a problem with verisimilitude.  The entire script is comprised of Sontag’s journal entries from the years 1947 – 1963, which start when Sontag was only 15.

As the play opens, a projection of Sontag smoking and reading a journal looms large over the younger Sontag – played by the versatile and ageless Moe Angelos – who is sitting at a desk , also with her journal.  Behind her is a projection of the journal itself, with the text lighting up as Sontag creates it.  I am not a huge fan of projection onstage – it doesn’t really mesh with my notion of live theater – but this totally worked.  The projected Sontag, the end result of the younger  Sontag’s choices, comments pointedly on her younger self’s emotions and choices, so much so that I forgot she was a projection and began to view her as a second character in a two-person play.  At the end of the piece when the live Sontag becomes fully realized and the projected Sontag disappears, I found myself missing her.  

The most interesting part of any celebrity biography is the climb up, and Sontag’s journals give the viewer plenty of material.  Bisexual, intellectually curious, and obsessively introspective, the journals reveal the young Sontag struggling to find her place in the world.  “What is it to be young in years and suddenly wakened to the anguish, the urgency of life? It is to stumble out of the jungle and fall into an abyss.”  The abyss is full of interesting and tumultuous impulses, the safest being reading material.  Sontag is a prolific reader, and titles of all of the books she has read or is longing to read spill wildly from her head and out from the projector. Will is a repeated theme throughout the journals – “Style is the signature of the artist’s will’ she declares, as well as how she wills herself to be in a relationship with a painter named Irene, wills custody of her young son, David, and ultimately, wills the projected Sontag, whose style and intellect were so indomitable.  

Relationships are a struggle – the journals reveal a person who craves intimacy yet needs to be free to create a self apart from someone else.  Her sensual nature is deep – “To love one’s body and use it well is primary” she writes, after her first encounter with a woman she calls H.  She makes up her mind to have many lovers, and that she does – both women and men fascinate, but her real love is writing.  And love it is. For more info go to: