When Anaïs Nin began writing, almost 100 years ago, the literary world had no way to deal with her.
To be sure, there were liberated women in Paris after World War I — performers, writers, sexual adventurers who littered the Left Bank cafés and shone at Gertrude Stein’s salons. But none wrote as frankly and freely about the sensual life as Nin, who claimed the same liberty — in her personal life as well as her writing– that Henry Miller was carving out for men.
Nin had to write anonymous dollar-a-page porn to support herself. Later, as her own works were published, readers who avidly followed her tempestuous sexual odyssey denounced her in public, punishing her with puritan prudery for daring to live an unplanned, embodied life.
Not until the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s did Nin receive more than grudging respect as an artist — and still, thirty years later, she was savaged by her first biographer. Only now are her stormy life and work appearing onstage.
To capture this whirlwind, librettist/composer Cindy Shapiro and director/choreographer Janet Roston devised a new theatrical form — a dance opera. “Eternal Anaïs,” a narrator garbed like the Interlocutor of a burlesque show, weaves together 17 scenes, with a song for each; meanwhile “Anaïs,” a dancer, enacts each episode. They’re supported by a versatile five-member troupe who dance, sing and act as needed, and by the constant flow of images and words — which were Nin’s lifeblood — on the upstage screen.
Shapiro’s music is unconventional and daring, and creates a world that flows steadily through the scenes; Roston’s energetic and often lyrical choreography similarly sustains the tone throughout. And the projections, by Joe LaRue and James Levy, are a marvel — yet they always serve the story.
Still, it’s up to two bravura performers to carry the show. Marisa Matthews (“Eternal Anaïs”) almost never leaves the stage, singing her way — often at full belt — through a solid hour and a half. Her focus and clarity, her ability to charm the audience, and her ease at synchronizing with recorded tracks are simply astounding. Micaela De Pauli (Anaïs) dances a full-length modern ballet with hardly a moment’s break; she creates a character we know and follow through every subtle change, and leaves us gasping.
The multi-talented ensemble members — Denise Woods, Jacqueline Hinton, Mathew D’Amico, Quinn Jaxon, and Michael Quiett — meet equally fierce demands (and handle the scene changes) with grace. In addition, Jaxon creates Nin’s first husband, a shy banker; D’Amico blusters on as her second, a film actor and outdoorsman; and Quiett shakes her world as Henry Miller, her great mentor and lover.
Putting a whole life onstage is a nearly impossible challenge: There’s so much to tell, and so little time. Anaïs takes us into an incredibly complex life, and does it more effectively — and poetically — than any theatrical biography I can recall.
When you arrive the Greenway Court Theatre, you may expect to be shocked by Anaïs Nin’s sexual frankness, as generations have been. Then again, in our polygendered, polyamorous era, you may not be. But you definitely will meet her — and be stunned by the artistry of the storytelling.
Anaïs: A Dance Opera, by Janet Roston and Cindy Shapiro, directed by Janet Roston.
Presented by Mixed eMotion Theatrix and Diana Raab, at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through September 18th.
Tickets: <www.GreenwayCourtTheatre.org> .