Isis Sadek studied Spanish and Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Ottawa and Duke University in North Carolina. She is now an Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina. She attended Sappho…in 9 fragments twice when it played in Ottawa, June 2013.
How to write about Jessica Ruano’s mise-en-scène and adaptation of Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ Sappho …in 9 fragments? How to write about it when what still echoes in my head is, even more than the stories it tells and weaves together, the interaction between the multiple elements that convey these plots, all brilliantly put into play by Ruano’s direction, Victoria Grove’s stirring and nuanced performance of all characters and Ana Inés Jabares Pita’s set design?
The play could be summarized as the intertwining of two stories: that of Sappho the Greek poetess who speaks to us from the prison-house of historical oblivion, lamenting the relentless erasure of her voice by a host of “clever, clever men” who appropriated her persona in their art and literature only to silence her voice, and that of a present-day Atthis, a fledgling actress named after Sappho’s lover, who falls deeply in love with an experienced actress aptly named … Sappho.
If this synopsis evokes the play’s revisionist thrust, it hardly scratches the surface of how this interpretation of the play rivets, entertains and challenges its audience throughout (and of why, the day after seeing it for the second time, its fragments are what still haunt me). Perhaps thinking in fragments can yield some critical insights.
“How do you tell a story when there are so many gaps?”
The play begins with this question, thus foregoing the temptation of presenting the audience with a unified narrative (a whole) to illuminate the elusive Sappho’s life and work. Instead, the script is based on the conceit that combines two perspectives: the voice of the Greek poetess to whom His-tory has been cruel alternates with the voice of the present-day Atthis, who endured cruelty at the hands of her sapphic lover. Victoria Grove’s talents and the immense skill with which she harnesses them make this plurality of perspectives dramatically convincing and effective. Grove first embodies Sappho with such an expressive balance between assertiveness and vulnerability, as she both taunts her detractors and enlists our sympathies, using a tone so determined and a voice so deeply husky and rich that, as a friend quips, it makes Lauren Bacall sound like Minnie Mouse.
Our surprise couldn’t be greater, when, adopting a more North American accent and a softer voice, she performs the vulnerable Atthis, thoroughly seduced, full of longing and self-doubt. This device hinges on the actress’ talents and it is a testament to her acting that the facial expressions, bodily gestures and attitudes that express Atthis’ fragility end up highlighting the historical Sappho’s vulnerability. Conversely, our own critical understanding of Sappho is enhanced by our closeness to the enamored Atthis, who delivers some of the more humorous parts of an intensely stimulating script. The use of distinct characters to tell parallel stories generates both closeness and distance, as Grove’s Sappho attracts and stirs us, while her Atthis’ fragility and emotional transparency distance us from the poetess.
Kinesis and the prison house of His-tory
The script’s fine use of language and its careful selection of poetic images prove to be tremendously evocative in re-creating remembered moments and places. Repeated in each plot, these poetic images create parallels and provide us with anchors. Yet if this use of language is in good part responsible for our involvement with the characters, the choreography and the set design stimulate our attention in different directions, challenging us to not rely solely on spoken language to extract the play’s richness of meanings, and grasp the characters’ complexity. Consisting of metallic bars bound together to form of the edges of the cube that, draped with white sheets at first, sustain the ropes from which Sappho hangs, jumps, twists, perches and cradles herself, and swings sometimes dreamily, sometimes furiously, the set design shapes Sappho and Atthis’ movement, also positioning them in ways that define their relation with their respective tormentor, whether cruel His-tory in the case of Sappho or Sappho herself for Atthis.
In this sense, the set design and the choreography work together to create multiple possible points of flight from the verbal anchoring of meaning. The combination of light, shadows and reflections, as well as the swinging and balancing and perching express more intuitively than her words Sappho’s fragmentary, and precarious positioning *and* her power over Atthis, intertwining the public and the private spheres. The shadows and reflections of Grove’s characters and their constant movement also highlight the shifting, slippery nature of the play’s very enterprise at reconstructing this mis-recognized figure. While from each seat, one can witness a different visual spectacle produced by the interplay between light and shadow, Grove’s constant movement becomes equally if not even more expressive than the words she utters, as is the case with her fast-paced repeated flailing between ropes near the end of the play when, following their separation, Sappho confesses her love for Atthis expressing through movement how this love had imprisoned her.
This synergy between the set design and the choreography constantly probes the limits of verbal language. For example, when Sappho accounts for her historical erasure in a memorable scene in which the sentences describing how her poetry and writing were burned and her voice extinguished are punctuated and linked with successive “POOF”s as the lights turn off and then on again. Together, these elements supplement and, in some cases, deepen the gaps that language and His-tory won’t probe or allow, as if refusing to “never prod a pebble on the beach”, to use an injunction that Sappho repeats throughout the play.
You’ll sink without a trace
While during the first few minutes of the play, the script establishes as themes the gaps, fragments and holes that plague any attempt at storytelling, its use of the elements of theatrical form is cohesive. The synergy between the use of kinesis and the verbal/sonic and visual dimensions creates an entirely enveloping and involving experience, that stimulates different modes of perception separately, to then incite them to function in unison as we grow accustomed to this mode of perception or, even better, upon a second viewing of the play. Even more than what the characters will say next, we wonder where they will be next, how they will move and what this movement and positioning will express. Ruano and Grove’s collaboration brings to theater the intense and meticulously planned sensorial stimulation that this medium should provide at its very best. This is no small feat considering not only the quality of the script but also Sappho’s damning repetition that “you’ll sink without a trace”, once quoting her His-torians and then upon breaking off her relationship with Atthis.
Along with Grove’s twists, intonations, expressions and shadows, the brilliance of this play’s use of fragments to compose this story and its multiple sensory effects will stay with this reviewer for a long time to come.