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The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky (A Performance)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

At The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky (A Performance), the outspoken political activist, linguist, and writer never makes an appearance himself. However, as it's derived entirely from Chomsky's written and spoken words, his personality comes through loud and clear, and that proves more than enough to sustain a complete evening.

Audiences daring to take in the show (it can't properly be called a play), which is playing at Chashama@113 through Sunday, should be aware of two things: seating (and leg room) is extremely limited, and the performance arrives as an assault on not only your eyes and ears but also your mind. Chomsky's points of view are on such fervent, undiluted display that the faint of heart - or belief - are advised to stay away.

Everyone else is in for one heck of a time, regardless of positioning on the political spectrum. As the title suggests, Chomsky forever stands apart, tackling conventional wisdom and political expediency and obfuscation with a simple, direct manner and a tone of voice that suggests it comes as naturally to him as breathing. In this show, Chomsky is portrayed onstage by Aya Ogawa, and while the notion of a young Japanese-American woman portraying Chomsky first seems gimmicky, it's soon revealed to be anything but.

Ogawa's obvious differences from the real Chomsky force you to focus on Chomsky's words and debating techniques. Ogawa expends some effort recreating Chomsky's speech patterns and physical and vocal style, but though she's not attempting a direct imitation, she manages to create a personality full enough of theatrical force to be an excellent substitute for the real thing. She's joined by two other fine performers, Judson Kniffen and Alanna Medlock, who play a wide variety of roles, often reporters or well-known commentators, but almost always anxious to talk to or about Chomsky.

Their frenetic energy and rapidly shifting characterizations provide an excellent contrast to the fiercely controlled Ogawa, and the interactions of all three actors are what give the show its unique feel. Director Noel Salzman certainly helps, and he has taken great pains to ensure that the proceedings are never boring - the frequent interjections of dance, audio (designed by Katie Down), and video (the brilliant work of Brian Nishii with Kristen Petliski) enhance the experience even further.

The video is used to especially good effect; the highlight of the show is a CNN confrontation between Chomsky and William Bennett (Kniffen) moderated by Paula Zahn (Medlock) in which pre-recorded video and the live actors' voices are merged to recreate the debate. It's a technical marvel, but it's so clever and well executed, it never feels less than a fully integral part of the show. The same can be said of David Esler's mirror box of a set, which suggests an observation room in which Chomsky is being studied by unknown figures from behind two-way mirrors.

Only occasionally do Salzman's staging concepts fail to take hold, most notably during a lengthy monologue (about ten minutes), the whole of which Ogawa delivers to the set's far corner, her back to the audience. The distancing effect again focuses your attention on the substance of Chomsky's arguments (concerning political complicity in the deaths of people in Guatemala, among other subjects), but the sudden lull in the action so near the end of the play feels like something of a letdown.

That's about all that does. The comprehensively researched piece (the program cites 24 sources, from Chomsky's own books to a 1994 This Modern World comic strip) may be an unusual tribute to a surprising subject, but it's as confrontational and thought provoking as theatre of this type should be.

It's interesting that the real Chomsky's reaction to being informed about the work even made it into the show - while he claims that Salzman's endeavor is beyond his normal field of understanding, the wit, intelligence, and care with which it's been presented suggest that The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky (A Performance) is something of which he would no doubt approve.

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The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky (A Performance)
February 27 at 7 & 9 pm, and February 28 at 7 & 9 pm
Tixe Arts Space at Chashama, 113 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: 212.592.4644