“I have a world of friends inside me, with their own real, individual, imperfect lives,” wrote Fernando Pessoa in “The Book of Disquiet,” a cryptic posthumous book that was assembled from fragments he left behind, and published 47 years after his 1935 death.
Michel van der Aa’s “The Book of Disquiet,” which premiered Jan. 21 at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University — as part of the Peak Performances series — is an inventive multimedia piece that attempts to bring the Portuguese writer’s words to three-dimensional life. Actor Samuel West portrays Bernardo Soares, a character who is, like Pessoa himself, a writer with a rich inner life.
Other characters (or “heteronyms,” to use Pessoa’s preferred term), including a street sweeper and a military officer, are portrayed by actors in a film. A 15-piece musical ensemble on one side of the stage plays the roiling, intentionally unsettling score written by the Dutch van der Aa, who also directed, and adapted the libretto from Pessoa’s work.
There’s no plot and, certainly, no tidy resolution in this music/theater/film piece, which is making its American premiere in Montclair. It’s more like an extended meditation, the focus constantly shifting between the film (and the different characters within the film), the music, and what’s going on, onstage. A character in the film slides a piece of paper under a door, and West pulls it out from under one of the large circles that adorn the stage; percussionist Chris Thompson steps out from among the other musicians to take a solo, gracefully striking one of the other circles.
Ana Moura has a luminous presence as a mysterious woman in the film who sings two fado songs (written by van der Aa). And West plays Soares with great ugency, a writer grappling with the truth, struggling to express the inexpressable.
“I am the size of what I see,” says Soares.
“How do I know it’s not … I who am your dream instead of you being mine?” he asks, at another.
Soares seems very real, and yet, “The Book of Disquiet” is abstract in many ways, and more like a jigsaw puzzle — with various pieces that come together at times to create a bigger picture — than a traditional bit of theater. This is the kind of work where you will see, and feel, something different, every time you watch it.
The final performance of “The Book of Disquiet” will take place at 3 p.m. Jan. 24; visit peakperfs.org.