The Shed’s glossy lobby is mere feet from dusty Eleventh Avenue, but atmospheric light years away. When I walked through its glass doors on Wednesday night, I thought first about the luxury-home-meets-AI-laboratory in Ex Machina, where Oscar Isaac both lives lavishly and builds humanoid robots for a creepy corporation.
New York’s new multi-arts space on the Hudson is a futuristic-looking glass structure with a retractable roof and an enormous escalator that spirals up and down its eight-level spine. Making your way up to the theater space on the sixth floor is not unlike heading to the top levels of the Union Square multiplex, if that multiplex were magnificent in a mod, Hudson Yards way. If, as you wound your way up to see the fiftieth Transformers movie, you were in a transformer, and the river was glittering in every line of sight.
The Shed opened to the public earlier this month, advertising itself as “the first arts center dedicated to commissioning, producing, and presenting all types of performing arts, visual arts, and popular culture…under one roof.” About 25,000 of its 200,000 available square feet are currently devoted to gallery spaces; the theater, which is convertible, seats 500; and the one roof to shelter all—the “movable outer shell”—can pull back over the adjoining outdoor plaza, doubling the potential space that is light-, sound-, and temperature-controlled. It aims to be able to house anything; concerts and massive installations and intimate, 2-person plays, too. It’s incredibly impressive, and stylistically sleek the way much of Hudson Yards is—it’s got that in-vogue, Apple-reminiscent design aesthetic. Clean, high-tech, urban, curated as hell.
The play running in the Griffin theater space right now—Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, the first of The Shed’s very first season—stars Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming, each a craft master. It has a script by Anne Carson, the poet, translator, and Classics professor who has written—among a ton of other books—Nox, a brilliant poetry collection/art scrapbook/eulogy to her late brother. “Genre is basically a matter of occasion,” she explains in this play’s program. “If you’re invited to a wedding, you write a wedding song.”
Carson’s interest in a multitude of genres and in mixing registers is on full display in Norma Jeane. Many of Whishaw’s lines, like “She’s just a bit of grit caught in the world’s need for transcendence,” are gorgeous and heightened, like poetry; the references tossed around range from Persephone to Pearl Bailey; the set is naturalistic, but the action happening on it is mythic and strange. We’re ostensibly watching two people write a play within a play about Marilyn Monroe, but they’re also investigating the Trojan War, and (in Fleming’s case) delivering operatic sung-monologues about rape and Greek tragedy, and (in Whishaw’s case) getting into full, Seven Year Itch Marilyn drag. It’s about gender and pain and war and mythmaking—all interesting, but wordy and not easy to follow. If my attention wandered off at any point, at least the Griffin’s beautiful raised stage and sleek all-black look gave me plenty to appreciate.
The Shed is introducing itself to New York City (and to the world—Björk is coming this summer!) as a modern home for multi-genre expression and for prestige work. That makes Norma Jeane Baker of Troy an apt inaugural theater choice: the production, a lot like the building it’s housed in, is beautifully executed, if kind of confusing and alienating. A lot to take in.