THEATER REVIEW | “Behind The Eye” at Park Square Theatre gets the full picture of a famous photographer

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I fell in love with Carson Kreitzer’s writing back in the early 2000s when I first read her play Freakshow. The way she bends and twists language to do exactly the poetic things she wants it to do. The strange sideways glance she gives the world, a world you recognize but now see in a completely different way because of the manner in which she frames it. Her sharp, peculiar sense of humor.  An audience can’t sit passively and watch one of her plays drift by—it’s too busy prodding you with little shocks and surprises (and that’s as true if you’re seeing it live on stage or simply reading it). I like the way she’s drawn to the oddballs and the outcasts—whether it’s the sideshow monstrosities of Freakshow, serial killers (Self Defense or the Death of Some Salesmen), nuclear scientists (The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer), the spirits of celebrities trapped in limbo (Dead Wait), or the different breed of human being who decides to live and die in Las Vegas (Flesh and the Desert). 

“I have never met a woman quite like you.”
“You won’t. I’m it.”

I enjoy Carson Kreitzer’s writing so much that it continues to baffle me that, with one notable exception (the lyrical and melancholy Be Here Now), every production I’ve seen of one of her plays has driven me a little (or a lot) nuts. There’s always something, or several somethings, that never quite click(s). Could it be I’m holding the production or the script to some impossible higher standard because I think Kreitzer is just so good? Maybe. Could it be the subject matter that unsettles me, never quite lets me relax and enjoy myself? Possibly. Great production or no, moments from the plays all keep rattling around in my head and won’t let me be. That’s got to count for something, right?

“Demons lurked, waiting to eat your childhood like an ice cream.”

So if you haven’t seen a Carson Kreitzer play, you should go see Park Square Theatre’s production of her script Behind The Eye—a riff on the life of photographer Lee Miller. And if you want to see the wonderful Annie Enneking strap a play to her back and through prodigious talent and sheer force of will try to drag it up that hill and make it work (and very nearly do so), then you should go see Behind The Eye. Kreitzer or Enneking alone would be enough to warrant your attendance, but the combination of these two artists together make it almost required viewing for Twin Cities theatergoers.

“Some day you, too, will be an old woman. I know you don’t think so, but you will.”

The talent doesn’t stop there by a long shot, of course. We have director Leah Cooper helming the project. Enneking heads up an ensemble consisting of Gabriele Angieri, Patrick Bailey, Mo Perry and John Riedlinger all juggling multiple roles fleshing out the sprawling tapestry of Lee Miller’s long eventful life. Behind The Eye also looks as sharp as its dialogue. A playwright couldn’t ask for a richer world for their story to live in: Kristin Ellert’s set and large screen projections, Annie Cady’s costumes, Michael P. Kittel’s lights, C. Andrew Mayer’s sound, and Sarah Holmberg’s props—they all get each detail just right, setting the time and place without crowding out the story with excess clutter.

“The partitioning of Vienna was less complicated than you.”

It’s easy to see what would draw a writer to Lee Miller as subject matter. When they coined the phrase “larger than life,” it was for people like Miller. She needed World War II to give her a context with the proper scale. Lee Miller was a person of outsized appetites—for adventure and sex as much as art, though art was always her primary driving force. She never allowed herself to be defined by other people, certainly not the men in her life. She functioned best when she didn’t accept limits. She didn’t just not take “no” for an answer. She didn’t recognize “no” as a word with any function in the English language. Miller wasn’t only in the thick of battle, she also bore witness to the horrors of the liberated concentration camps when the fighting was finally over. 

“Who would’ve thought I’d have wound up somewhere with cows out the window.”

The only thing Miller couldn’t handle was “a woman’s place” after the war. Settling down in the English countryside, putting down her camera and taking up a spatula to work her magic as a gourmet in the kitchen, she found post-war life to be enough to drive an adventurous person to drink. Behind The Eye remarkably hopscotches its way through Miller’s entire adult life, with only a glancing reference to a perhaps disturbing childhood.

“Just a smear of blood and fur, like any of us.”

With so much right about Behind The Eye, what exactly is wrong? That’s a tough one. Lately, I find a lot of new work falling into one of two camps. There are the plays that have characters talk to one another in scenes, revealing themselves through dialogue and conflict—your Annie Bakers and Sara Ruhls and Gina Gionfriddos. And there are the plays that don’t – plays that don’t linger on any one scene too long, that try to build character through an accumulation of language and incident, rather than your standard “beginning-middle-end” kind of plot. Behind The Eye falls into this latter category. 

“I have had my face chopped off by the best.”

Both types of writing are equally valid, but it’s harder to do the second kind of storytelling. The scene-based storytelling invites you to lose yourself in the story. The kind of story Behind The Eye is telling wants you to keep a clinical distance from it all (in much the same way I’m sure Miller viewed her subjects). That sort of detachment may be ideal for the composition of a photograph, but I’m not sure it works for a play. Even though the character of Miller spends so much of her time addressing the audience directly, we end up knowing very little about her.

“Men who don’t believe in sin until you behave the way they do.”

Perhaps she was unknowable. Perhaps she didn’t know herself. Maybe that’s the point. But there’s a moment in the play where Miller is actually taking a bath in Hitler’s bathtub, and she can’t seem to get the ash from the concentration camp off her body. So her wartime lover walks over to help scrub her down. A moment that freighted with—hell, everything—should land, and land hard. Even though it’s going to stick with me for a long time as an idea, the presentation of that idea, onstage, right in front of me, never quite clicked. 

“I will paint you with birds for hands.”

There’s a detail revealed late in the play that Miller didn’t use a zoom or telephoto lens during the war and after. Miller’s famous documentation of details of a concentration camp becomes even more remarkable when you realize just how close she would have had to get to her horrific subjects to capture those images. Behind The Eye seems to want us to get that close to Miller herself, but for some reason it doesn’t feel like it allows the audience that level of access.

“Thank God for the cancer. Finally something to be brave about.  I thought death had forgotten me.”

Behind The Eye is the portrait of a fascinating woman. Maybe, just like in real life, Lee Miller is too big an entity to contain in something as simple as a play. But with all these artists at Park Square on the case, it’s compelling to watch them try.

4 stars – Highly Recommended


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