2020 marks the centennial of Clarice Lispector’s birth. The Ukrainian-Jewish refugee who settled in Brazil has long been acclaimed as a feminist trailblazer in male dominated South American literature. Fortunately, her canon is newly translated into English. The New Stage Theatre Company celebrates Lispector with an evocatively uncompromising adaptation of Near to the Wild Heart. Artistic director Ildiko Nemeth’s production is both an English-language premiere and first-ever North American stage adaptation of Lispector’s 1943 debut novel.
Lispector’s writing is semi-autobiographical and surreal – the artistically experimental, not the hashtag kind. The “Wild Heart” belongs to Joana (Sarah Lemp), who is smart, bored and unhappily married to Otavio (Markus Hirnigel). He’s just as disinterested; his mistress Lidia (Katalin Ruzsik) is pregnant. Joana’s 90-minute stream of consciousness biography reveals a lifetime of uncomfortable relationships with the other men in her life, including her Father (Ken Raboy), adored Teacher (Fritz Buecker) and lover known as The Man (Maciej Bartoszewski). Her spectral Mother (Lisa Giobbi) and the bitter Aunt (Gina Bonati) who took her in only to send her to boarding school are even less comforting. When Joana owns up that her memories are a part of her reality, she resolves to life live for herself.
Artistic director Ildiko Nemeth’s production makes terrific use of The New Stage Performance Space, a basement seating approximately 30. There is no stage platform, making the actors and audience equal participants in exploring Joana’s wandering mind. Nemeth, who used Alison Entrekin’s English translation of the novel, controls the heroine’s shifting perceptions of time and reality so well that what could be heavy doses of literary tour de force is fluidly presented. Jessica Sofia Mitrani’s black-and-white video designs projected against the back wall create a properly surreal atmosphere of clinging vines, rolling waves, cloudy skies, overgrown flora and fauna and creepy eyeballs. Jessica Sofia Mitrani and Hailey Desjardins’s are exaggerated as only in a nightmare or really bad day can be.
Lispector’s feminism allows women regardless of background to see themselves in ordinary circumstances presented in unusual ways – though interior monologues are certainly not limited to books or the stage. That is why Sarah Lemp’s Joana is relatable. How many young women still experience insensitive sexist remarks from their obnoxious Father’s Friend (Theodore Bouloukos)?
The rest of the cast is equally convincing as the shadowy participants in a reality not exactly of one’s own making.