Tuesday, March 21, 2023


On March 13, Ellen Warkentine presented a fantasy drawn from the copious writings of Anaîs Nin in her production of NIN DESCENDING A STAIRCASE performed at the charming, diminutive bar called SINGLISH on 13th Street in New York City. In another lifetime, the location of Singlish served as the site for Anaîs Nin's printing press, and headquarters for her literary activity and iconoclastic lifestyle.  Warkentine selected the writings and organized them into a dramatic structure performed by three actors, and one of the most original bands to ever perform Off-Broadway.

Although this production enhances the thesis work for Warkentine's Masters Degree at NYU's Gallatin School, this is a thoroughly professional production mounted at a level far beyond most Off-Broadway offerings.  Warkentine is a composer, singer, poet, and writer. Each of her creative roles is professional and artistically insightful, as she crafts a masterpiece of her own from another artist's ouevre that resonates with her own sensibility.

The audience is brought into the work at the beginning by walking up the stairs of the tiny bar to begin the performance and descending the stairs to punctuate the ending. Every element of the production is coordinated to shape the character of Nin as revealed through her writings.

Warkentine shapes a distinctive profile of Nin drawn from Nin's own extensive writings. Nin's writing career spans many years and she may be the most prolific female author who ever lived. Indeed her extensive works appear more copious than most male authors. She was constantly writing diaries, essays, novels, and exchanging letters with many authors and artists, including Henry Miller.

NIN DESCENDING A STAIRCASE is presented in seven scenes performed without interruption.
      1. Sabina (A Spy in the House of Love)
      2. Lina (Little Birds)
      3. Djuna (Four Chambered Heart)
      4. Lillian (Ladders to Fire)
      5. Lilith (Winter of Artifice)
      6. Djuna 2
      7. Stella (Stella)

The scene names seem more like a cryptic code instead of a dramatic structure, but actors and musicians reveal the substance of the narrative that discloses Anaîs Nin, unpacking the events and relations in her life to achieve an apotheosis of self awareness and insight. Nin's life of protest, writing, and iconoclasm culminates in her own understanding of her contradictions as Stella, resolving her enigma in a celebration of understanding and forgiveness.

Elizabeth Stahlmann, a facet of Nin as Sabina, opens the first scene in a monologue that sets the tone of rapidly changing, volatile emotions. She is a liar to herself and the world ("wash your lying eyes and face"). Stahlmann is a major talent. Clearly this is an Off-Broadway performance worthy of an Obie or Tony Award. Her expressive range provides a stunning control of her voice, her facial charisma, and imaginative gestures. Her technique as an actress is what makes us believe by the end of this production that she has achieved a spiritual awakening by examining her life and works. By the end of the performance, Nin as Stella has achieved celebrity, but even more, she is spiritually aware, "melting everyone" and artistically fulfilled.

Equally accomplished, Anna Crivelli (two faces of Djuna) as the Lina facade of Nin "is a liar who can't bear her real face in the mirror." Her interaction with Stahlman is flawless and convincing as a foil of introspection in the gathering awareness of Nin whose passion for life has evolved into an artform. Djuna struggles with conflicting desires in a search for "peace in simplicity." The deft direction of Jesse Rasmussen (who is also a co-creator) is clear as the interaction of Crivelli and Stahlmann becomes so entwined through gesture and fluid movement that they metaphorically and visually become one.

With a performance filled with women, Leland Fowler, an accomplished actor with a rich background from Shakespeare to modern classics in Off-Broadway and Theater Festival venues is much more than a "token male" among a bevy of exceedingly accomplished females. As Jay, the Lie Detector, he shines the light of truth on Nin's fantasies. He is a powerful and demanding presence, but adds an air of the calm inquisitor in search of truth.

A word about the band of musicians, instrumentalists who also provide a song as explication of Nin's emerging realization of her existence as an artist. The instrumental/vocal ensemble, Ellen Warkentine, piano et al, Eve Elliot piano, accordian, et al, Hanna Rose Dexter, Bass, and Daisy Castro, Violin, all perform songs that contribute to the narrative structure in a much more integrated way than a traditional Greek Chorus. Each song seems an introspective journey through the inner terrain of Anaîs Nin.

Billed as "A Site Specific Cabaret," this Off-Broadway production by Ellen Warkentine in collaboration with Jesse Rasmussen, this reflection on Anaîs Nin's creative journey, transcends traditional staged drama, almost like the Happenings that occurred in New York City in the 1950s. This was the milieu of Nin as an artistic genius and historian of a creative epoch of American artists hailing a new era of making Art.

                                                                                 ...Jon Vance


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