Theater Mitu’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ (Photo courtesy of Theater Mitu via The Broadway Blog.)
By Matthew Wexler
Arthur Miller’s Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Death of a Salesman, has been a Broadway and regional theater staple, and likely on the reading list for any college Theater 101 class across the country. And with good reason. The heartbreaking story of Willy Loman, his wife Linda, and his two adult sons, Biff and Happy, are a spotlight on the crumbling American Dream and resonates as deeply today as it did when the play first premiered in 1949. Theater Mitu — a collective of artists driven by a theory titled “whole theater, a theatrical experience that is rigorously visual, aural, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual all in the same moment” — has dissected and reassembled the play into a multi-sensory experience for the 21 century. Does it hit all of the company’s theatrical touch points as described in their mission statement? Not exactly.
Presented at BAM’s Fisher’s Fishman space, Theater Mitu strips down Miller’s play into an ensemble of six actors and a live score (performed by the ambidextrous Ada Westfall). A wide range of theatrical conventions are used to approach the work from a multisensory directive, including masks, puppeteering, experimental sound design and the occasionally blinding lighting, often hand-held by the actors and shined directly into the audience.
Cumulatively, this makes for a somewhat assaulting production that, despite the intention, overshadows Miller’s searing dialogue, which works best when the actors are simply acting and not burdened with style. This isn’t to say that all is lost in director Rubén Polendo’s experimentation. Repetitive movements that harken back to Michael Chekhov’s mid-20th-century tool of psychological gestures add gravitas to moments between Willy and Linda, and the puppeteers find their rhythm in the restaurant scene with Willy, his sons, and the women (represented by vintage table fans) they’ve picked up at the bar.
Beyond all of the theatrics, Death of a Salesman is a cautionary tale about aging, fidelity, and economics and its impact on the nuclear family. Theater Mitu in its narrative speaks volumes about its processes and dramaturgical endeavors to get to the core of its own interpretation. The playbill includes a bibliography of research material and a laundry list of institutions and programs the artists engaged with to create the work. But like the playbill itself — printed in various fonts printed on a black background and nearly impossible to read — the result is murky.
Though I’m intrigued by Theater Mitu’s methodology, now 20 years in the making, what I long for more than anything when going to the theater is emotional resonance, to believe the actors in whatever world they’ve chosen to create, and to go on that journey with them. And while I feel like the company has a visionary style, the substance is lost in translation.
Here’s what other critics have to say:
Of course this “Death of a Salesman” is trying, and trying hard, but the gap between its aims and its peculiar ways of achieving them never gets bridged. Willy, as Linda says, wasn’t a great man or a famous man or even an exemplary one. Still, he’s one of the great characters the American stage has produced. He deserves more. – The New York Times
Purists who prefer a straightforward Salesman may balk at Theater Mitu’s take. This production, however, performed at a time when our country is taking a hard look at its own delusions, gives Miller’s words a modern resonance. “Attention must be paid,” says Linda, wearing a mask, about her hardworking husband. As we scrutinize the myth of the American dream, that’s a message many of us are just waking up to. – Theatermania
Death of a Salesman
Theater Mitu at BAM Fisher Space
321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through July 23
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on Facebook at Wexler Writes.