Review: In ‘Acquanetta,’ a Cult Movie Star’s Eyes to Die For

Review: In ‘Acquanetta,’ a Cult Movie Star’s Eyes to Die For

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — These are eyes you could truly get lost in, and probably never emerge from. They belong to the title character of “Acquanetta,” a spine-tingling chamber opera by Michael Gordon and Deborah Artman at Bard SummerScape festival. And when you first see them, you’ll probably have no idea what they are.

That’s because in this production — directed by the hot (and cool) theater auteur Daniel Fish at Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts here — they are filmed in simulcast video, in the kind of merciless, magnifying close-ups usually reserved for biology labs. Projected in scratchy black-and-white onto a large screen glowing from a blank, black stage, the eyes of the 1940s cult movie star Acquanetta (portrayed by Rebecca L. Hargrove) read as fathomless whirlpools, edged in spiky vegetation, from some alien landscape.

The music that accompanies this vision has that repeated, assaultive scraping sound you associate with horror movies (Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho,” in particular). A melding of human voices and shrieking strings, it’s a full-throttle scream transformed into pulsing melody. And it’s enough to make the hairs of even a slasher-flick devotee stand on end.

But the source of the very genuine terror at the center of “Acquanetta” isn’t your usual cinematic psychopath, zombie or vampire. The boogeyman is instead golden-age Hollywood itself, where a young woman can be so radically and disfiguringly transformed that she’ll no longer know who she is.

Staged in an earlier version at the Prototype Festival in New York City last year, “Acquanetta,” in its current incarnation, is a must-see for fans of Mr. Fisher’s iconoclastic interpretation of “Oklahoma!,” which won this year’s Tony Award for best revival of a musical and was previously seen at Bard in 2015. Like that production, his “Acquanetta” seeks out the teeming cultural anxiety beneath a familiar surface.

In this case, it translates the B horror movie, a genre that usually inspires hoots and giggles, into a far scarier consideration of existential ambiguity. “Acquanetta” takes place, sort of, on the set of “Captive Wild Woman,” a 1943 film by Edward Dmytryk about a hubristic scientist who transforms an ape into a woman. (From The New York Times’s review: “Either you decide to meet this bit of scientific hocus-pocus at its own inane level or else you are likely to get hopping mad.”)

The real-life Acquanetta (1921-2004), who portrayed the ape in its human form, is a perfect subject for an exploration of mutating identity. During her brief career in Hollywood, she specialized in exotic types of fantastical provenance origins. (She was also the titular cult leader of “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman” in 1946)

Appropriately, her own origins and ethnicity remain something of a mystery. Was she Burnu Acquanetta, the orphan child of Arapaho parents from Wyoming, as she claimed, or Mildred Davenport of Norristown, Pa.? Her studio publicity department presented her as the Venezuelan Volcano.

That’s quite a clash of identities. And they’re all in play in the show’s opening aria, in which Acquanetta sings, “Revise me, elide me, alter me — Mildred me.”

As she sings, makeup artists are industriously at work on her face. A heavenly yet hellish chorus (members of the estimable Choir of Trinity Wall Street) responds with delighted “ahhs” of awe. Not that we see them in the flesh, or the movie’s director (Christopher Burchett) and other cast members (Timur as a doctor, Eliza Bagg as the ape and Amelia Watkins as a Jean Harlow blonde in a nurse’s uniform).

For much of the production, these characters are perceived only as images on the screen. And Joshua Higgason’s brilliant video design, which makes dizzying use of a circling camera, presents them as people in a state of constant and bewildering transformation, in and out of costume and prosthetics in the twinkling of a bloodshot eye.

They perform with a wit that matches the playful intelligence and intensity of the score and libretto. It’s all great fun and highly unnerving, as a scary movie should be, while making you question the evidence of your own eyes. It’s the eye of the camera, after all, that controls what you see, parceling out visual information in sadistically teasing increments.

A probing camera may not seem like a terribly frightening substitute for Norman Bates’s knife or Dracula’s fangs. But, in Mr. Fish’s rendering, the camera racks up its own daunting roster of bloody casualties, displayed in a bravura final sequence that fully reveals Amy Rubin’s ingenious set, leaving the sense of a fully articulated self in gory shreds. (That both is and is not a metaphor.)

Accompanied by precision-tooled Bang on a Can musicians, the singers stylishly milk the dismay and disorientation in their dissonant vocal lines. Ms. Hargrove’s ravishing Acquanetta (“I am your beautiful monster,” she sings) is both mistress and captive of the close-ups in which she is usually framed.

That camera also aggressively stalks the supporting actress embodied by the divine Ms. Watkins, who is pursued into dead ends, acting up a storm, as if her life depended on it.

“I could be the ingénue, I could be the femme fatale,” she sings into the lens, gesticulating madly. “Please don’t take my brain.” Such pleas fall on deaf ears. In horror movies — heck, in any kind of movie — the camera always claims its victims.

Through July 21 at the Fisher Center, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.; 845-758-7900, Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

Ben Brantley has been the co-chief theater critic since 1996, filing reviews regularly from London as well as New York. Before joining The Times in 1993, he was a staff writer for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

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