Broke-heart Comic Jewel: “The Life of the Night”

You may know  Djuna Barnes — she’s finally coming into her own as a poetic chronicler of gay life in 1920s Paris.  (A decade earlier, she’d been a muckraking feminist reporter for New York’s newspapers.)

Her best-known novel, Nightwood, is about half-requited love and heartbreak.  She tells it in dense, image-filled  language, packed with the reflections of a fierce intelligence.  T.S. Eliot, who championed its publication, said, “Only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.”

Never intimidated by a challenge, The Others Theater Company has transformed this novel into a play.  They’re premiering the result — The Life of the Night — this month in Silver Lake.

It’s a triumph.

Amanda Newman, Madison Shepard, Jessica DeBruin

Amanda Newman, Madison Shepard, and Jessica DeBruin (photo: Stevie Rae Dominguez).

Kate Motzenbacher and her collaborators have distilled Barnes’  impressionistic mural of Left Bank life into a compact, effective drama.  Moving swiftly, and with clear direction, the four-character tale retains the wit and pathos of the original.

What’s more, the actors (and director) make sharp, strong choices and hold to them.  This shines intention through Barnes’ opaline words, like a light glowing through the dark-stained glass of a Tiffany lampshade.  It makes the purple passages clear and luminous — just what these people would say, must say, in this moment.

The protagonist Nora (Barnes’ self-portrait) is breathed powerfully  to life by Jessica DeBruin.  With unwavering energy and commitment, she flies from shy love-play to hair-rending agony, from dull depression to howling rage.  It’s a part for an operatic soprano, and DeBruin does coloratura with no visible effort.

Nora’s confidant, a transgender doctor named Matthew, has seen and done it all, and loves to talk about it.  Christopher Aguilar embraces this homme (and femme) raisonnable fully.  His flamboyant irony, rooted in suffering and love, never veers toward caricature;  it’s just Matthew intensely being (and at times mocking) himself.

As Nora’s rival, the dilettante club singer Jenny, Amanda Newman  sparkles.  Taking a cue from her 1920s song, “Naughty Springtime Cuckoo,” Newman (a bold casting choice) eschews a Billie Holiday knockoff and instead creates an eager, unwise girl whose birdlike mannerisms comically, sadly imitate a flapper’s seductiveness.

In their midst, fought and wept over, is the masculine Robin, an addict of the night life’s flowing liquor and casual sex.  With almost no lines, Madison Shepard nonetheless lets us feel something — fugitive, nearly lost, but still there — hiding inside this redbreast’s self-centered preening and sociopathic indifference.

All I’ve said still does not do justice to the achievement of The Life
of the Night.  Wonderful motifs of business and movement weave the story together visually and physically, and the adapter’s scalpel is so shrewdly wielded that nothing seems lost or left out, only clarified.

In a particularly nice touch, the pre-show introduces us to Nora and Robin non-verbally — then in the first scene, Nora and Matthew deluge us with Barnes’ language, letting us taste the novel’s impact.   At once, though, we’re swept into the fast-moving narrative, which never flags or becomes unclear.  By the climax, when Nora and Matthew again trade poetic aphorisms, we know who they are and what they’re saying and even why they’re shouting.

Then there’s the comedy.  The novel is autobiographical, and takes the liberty of viewing its characters as Nora (Barnes) sees them.  But onstage, each actor must believe in the character utterly, letting us see every character as they see themselves.  These actors do that.

Yet each also manages — goaded by pain or desire — to push just a bit past what the character would be comfortable seeing in a mirror.  So we also experience them, a bit, as Nora sees them.  At these moments, we slip unnoticed from the pathos of La Boheme to the wit of Being Earnest.  Barnes did it on paper; The Others have pulled it off onstage.

Finally, a note about queerness.  Nightwood is justly celebrated as American literature’s first overtly lesbian novel (and the Doctor as the first transgender character).  And “telling queer stories” is part of The Others’ mission to “tell stories that don’t usually get told.”

And … everyone in The Life of the Night is gender-fluid.  You’d think this might occasion some discussion of queerness, its many forms, and the struggles being queer entails.  But this story’s focus is on four people and their relationships with one another, not with their families or the outside world.

So except for the occasional insight  (such as Nora’s poignant remark about dolls) it’s almost wholly a drama of love, loss and grief.  These four people are just these four people, so fully presented that we believe them and understand why they love each other, and why it hurts so much when love fails.

The Life of the Night engages us with real people caught in the tides of love and need, and the mysteries of the night.  It moves us to suffer with them, and it makes us laugh.  And all in an hour, which ends as suddenly as love does.

Don’t miss it.
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The Life of the Night, adapted by The Others Theater Company from Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes; directed by Kate Motzenbacher.
Presented by The Others Theater Company at the Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd.

Jan. 8 (Thu.) 8:00 pm; Jan. 9 (Fri.), 8:00 pm; Jan. 24 (Sat.), 8:00 pm; Jan. 25 (Sun.), 5:00 pm.

Tickets: <www.sonofsemele.secureforce.com>

NOTE: The Life of the Night is one of four works by guest troupes that were incubated in the Son of Semele Ensemble’s “Company Creation Festival 2015.”  The others, also appearing through January, can be found at <www.sonofsemele.org> .