Dystopian “Death of a Salesman” Brings Hyper-Reality to BAM

All photos courtesy of Theater Mitu.

The American dream is dead. Not just dead, but pretty much decomposing before our eyes. Watch or read the news — or worse, consider in what kind of nihilistic, hopeless world we debate the difference between real news and fake news, or a real statesman in the White House or that fake pig squatting in the White House — and it becomes clear that the American dream is now a joke that no one is laughing at. It’s a unique moment, in other words, to revisit Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s iconic, sobering play about what it meant to dash the American dream in the dizzy euphoria after World War II. Theater Mitu, which presents the play at the BAM’s Fisher Space from July 14 through July 23, takes a stylized, heightened, “hyper-theatrical” approach to the play, as befitting a 20-year-old ensemble of experimental artists led by Rubén Polendo. The play, according to the press materials, asks what happens “when you are written out of the American dream.” On one level, yes, we already seem to know.

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But on another level, an empathic perspective on Salesman comes from Theater Mitu Associate Artistic Director Justin Nestor, whose meticulous, almost forensic approach to making theater feels like a drum-beat of resistance against America’s future only being gloomy and dyspeptic. Indeed, Nestor dispenses with the usual pablum about his work, going in for brooding metaphor when asked to describe himself:

He is often found either taking things apart or trying to put them back together. A mildly obsessive workaholic, he spends his days engaged in various modes of research, labor and creation. He has a deep romance with solitude but finds himself in need of others, despite his best efforts. He loves a well-crafted object and an opportunity to learn a new skill. He believes true collaboration is just graceful collision. He continues to be mystified by the simplicity and ubiquitous nature of electricity and the intensifying power of the Internet and big data. He is colorblind and dyslexic and has unintentional tremors mostly in his left hand. He drinks his coffee black.

Salesman marks Theater Mitu’s return to NYC after six years living “half overseas” in Abu Dhabi, where Nestor in particular focused

…on narrative archeology, the corporeal archive and technology as performer. Working across disciplines, he creates installations and works for the stage that explore the tension and overlap between performance, visual art and technology. His research interests include confinement, surveillance and data. These ideas manifest in the composition of ‘remains’ within space and time and the construction of ruins to investigate and reconcile what is there, what is not, what once was and what now is. The creation of false repositories of memory and experience. This is an investigation into what is at once extremely personal and part of a shared human experience.

A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he taught classes in Theater Mitu’s creation methodology and interactive technology for performance, Nestor has also taught stateside workshops in at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, The Eugene O’Neill National Theater Institute and Brigham Young University, and abroad at the Patravadi Theater in Bangkok, Visthar in Bangalore, Mongolian University of Arts and Culture in Ulaanbaatar, DUOC Universidad de Chile in Santiago, Yala Maya Kendra in Kathamandu, and NYU Abu Dhabi.

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In this Salesman, the sense of dystopia feels inescapable: how else to describe an America in which “human beings become objects” and “life is reduced to a mortgage”? In contrast to the vanquished optimism that Miller heaped upon the end of his play, when Linda Loman stood before the grave of Willy Loman, defeated American salesman, and demanded that “attention must be paid,” could this Salesman offer seeds of rebirth to a new American dream?

For tickets to Theater Mitu’s Death of a Salesman, click here.

And now, 5 questions Justin Nestor has never been asked:

salesmanWhat’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

I was once asked if my research into Buddhist ritual played a role in my approach to using digital technologies. It was perceptive and thoughtful enough that it actually caught me off guard.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

I find the question “Who is this work meant for?” to be pretty inane.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

This is particularly difficult to answer, as I quite like “weird” things, thoughts, questions. All that is to say: I think the weirdest thing asked about my work was how much it was worth and would I be willing to sell it or franchise it.

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What are the “hyper-theatrical” elements in this Death of a Salesman and how are voices used to change or amplify Arthur Miller’s original vision for the play? How does it affect or influence you as an actor?

As a company, we think of theater as a landscape of suggestion, a place where places can be evoked and dismissed in an instant and the transition from the outer to the inner world can be fluid and continuous. This means that the theatrical elements, or in this case “hyper-theatrical” elements of the piece are those that stretch us past manifesting what something looks like, but rather showing us what something feels like.

salesmanIn this production, some of these hyper-theatrical elements involve the trans-morphing of characters into puppeteered pedestrian objects, removing any and all architecture other than a concrete floor and a steel chair, and the reversing of the traditional age dynamic — instead of older actors playing young in the flashbacks, actors at the appropriate age of Willy and Linda’s youth are burdened with casting a light into the future. These things all serve to create an “emotional close-up” of a family reckoning with failure, worth and a world closing in around them. The original working title for Miller’s play was Inside of His Head. I often think this production plays towards that initial instinct of Miller’s. In his own stage directions, Miller does not offer the familiar rugs or couches that establish place and set the scene for a typical living-room drama. Instead, he joins the audience with the plural first-person: “We are aware of towering angular shapes”; there is “an angry glow of orange” and “an air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.” The action of the play literally is premised on characters wandering through walls, back and forth to the different times of their lives.

Removing the constraints of either realism or naturalism has allowed me, as an actor in the piece, to play additional layers that aren’t often offered to performers in Salesman. Normally, you would perform the character within his or her time and place. I am allowed, however, to play a version of Willy actively caught between the past and future while fully experiencing both. The constraints of time function very differently within my performance. Time, for this version of Willy, is non-linear, flexible and sometimes cyclical.

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Your Theater Mitu bio fascinates. If a person reads it knowing little of your process or technique of creating stage work, how would you translate it into language they could understand?

I would say that all humans love puzzles. We love the act of reconstructing something in search of clarity. My artistic practice engages directly with creating these puzzles for an audience or witness to engage with. The two tools I use consistently are the human body and technology. Shove those two elements in a confined space where there is a puzzle for me to try and solve and I’m sold!

Can you, in a limerick, answer this question: Is the American dream dead — or just in a coma of Trump-inspired stupidity?

The American Dream is not dead.
It’s just fast asleep in its bed.
It’s had a tough time,
No longer its prime,
This moment needs action instead.