Valley of Astonishment, directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, is a play that offers its audience a chance to take a journey into the mysteries and wonders of the human mind. The play explores a kaleidoscope of puzzling, bizarre, fascinating, at times comic and at times tragic manifestations of synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes a blending and overlapping of the five senses within the individuals affected with it, leading them to perceive the world in a distinctly unique way.
The play itself is, as Ben Brantley of The New York Times stated in his review, “minimal to the point of Spartan.” The only objects present on stage – a light wooden table and three chairs – compose the play’s entire set, causing the focus to rest on the actors and their characters solely. It is through their stories, their experiences and interactions with each other and the audience that we come to understand what synesthesia is, and how the world feels for those who have this condition. Kathryn Hunter's portrayal of Sammy Costas, a 40-year old woman struggling to make sense of the sudden fame and recognition that her condition and exceptional memory skills brought upon her, is both childlike and comic, at times tragic and vulnerable, but always genuine and touching. Her gestures, vivid facial expressions and rich, descriptive monologues directed towards the audience in a confiding and intimate way compensate for the production's lack of the overall visual effects and help the audience envision the world from the perspective of a person to whom words have colors and texture and sounds manifest themselves in the shapes of physical objects.
The minimalism of the production is what ultimately pushes members of the audience to use their own imagination in order to picture the world from a synesthet's perspective. Instead of explicitly visualizing the mental processes and perceptions of the characters on stage, the play urges us to leave our mental comfort zone and take a journey into the unknown hidden terrains and valleys of the human mind and learn to see the world through the eyes of a synaesthet – learn to see the sounds, feel the words, or taste the music.
The play itself is reflective of Peter Brook’s vision of theatre. Firstly, it shows Brook as a director committed to experimental theatre. Rejection of the traditional story-telling plot structure and conventional stage setting creates an emphasis on dialogue. Throughout the performance the actors reach out to the members of the audience, interact with them and strive to make them a part of the theatrical story-telling process. The card trick scene, for example, demonstrates how actors are trying to interact with members of the audience and engage them into the performance. During the course of the play, the actors, musicians and the audience are united in their quest of exploring the mind and its wonders and they step into this journey together.
Such organization of the play reflects Brook’s belief that there should be a strong connection established among the actors and their audience in order for a “theatrical miracle” to occur and in order for the audience to feel moved by the play. To Brook, human connection is the essence of good theatre and this can be clearly seen in Valley of Astonishment. Seeing the actors interact with the audience, inviting people to come on stage and engaging them into the events of the performance made the theatrical experience more authentic. The intimate atmosphere of Polonsky-Shakespeare Theatre For a New Audience resonated very well with the interactive, audience-centered format of the play.
I highly enjoyed Valley of Astonishment for its creativity both in terms of its unique central idea and the way that the performance was structured; the actors and their ability to quickly switch in and out of character were truly fascinating. Valley of Astonishment makes us appreciate the difference of perspective and vision, suggesting that science alone can never fully understand the human mind and all its mysteries. There is, like Ben Brantley noted in his review, something mystical in the human mind, which Valley of Astonishment was able to access and present.