Showing posts with label Emily Dickinson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emily Dickinson. Show all posts

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Kinsmen Meet at Dramaworks’ World Premiere of Edgar and Emily by Joseph McDonough

On a snowy evening in 1864 the poet laureate of death, Emily Dickinson, is visited by the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe in a world premiere play, Joseph McDonough’s Edgar and Emily at Palm Beach Dramaworks.  And indeed the play is shaped around the main theme of many of their poems (or stories): death (and its corollary, what it means to live), Emily taking a more transcendental view and Poe the ghoulish. 

Although this may seem initially distressing, this delicate but insightful play is a work of art.  Its universal truths lie between comedy and melancholy.  Throughout the play there are pratfalls or physical comedic elements to give it an absurdist twist, giving the audience permission to laugh, even though the characters are two well known poets and the subject matter is one we all generally try to avoid thinking about.

Its brevity (one act packed into 1-1/4 hours) belies its profundity.  It is like a Dickinson poem, a meaningful deliberation of what it means to live and die laid bare in but a few lines.  I kept on thinking of one of my favorite Dickinson poems “I died for beauty”* which has the phrase “as kinsmen met a night.”  In many respects, Dickinson and Poe are kinsmen.  Words intensely mattered to them, and ultimately Edgar and Emily led us there.

Those absurdist elements allow this unlikely meeting to suddenly occur fifteen years after Poe’s death. But he is very much alive, stumbling into Dickinson’s universe, her bedroom in her parent’s house in Amherst.   But wait, what is it he drags around with him?  It’s his coffin!  Naturally Emily is indignant at this man visiting her in her room, claiming to be Edgar Allan Poe, and how can this be so many years after his death?  Easy explanation, after being buried alive he was miraculously rescued by a woman in white, perhaps an angel (ironically, Dickinson is normally attired in white), with the condition he take his coffin wherever he goes.  Unfortunately, he is being chased by his doppelganger who wants to make his rigor mortis permanent.  

The play is a beautiful piece of writing, smoothly flowing from comedy, to poetry to expectation of flight, to deep philosophical discussions of what it means to live with eternity before birth and after death.  They reveal themselves to one another and in the process both are changed.  The play ultimately leads to Poe suggesting that he and Emily go out into the world together.  Her hesitation, whether she could bring her words, creates as much dramatic tension as the ominous voice of his pursuer crying out, “Poe!” 

When Gregg Weiner as Edgar Allan Poe barges into Dickinson’s bedroom, he is agitated and in great fear that he’s being followed.  He is totally indifferent to the woman in the room.  When he tells her who he is, laughter erupts as he ends up defending his own work.  The tables soon turn and he expresses a cynical dismissiveness about her claims of being a poet as well.  Weiner’s nuanced performance creates an aura of unpredictability.  His gift for comedic sarcasm is much in evidence, such as his exchange with Emily when he first reads one of her poems: “I have survived poetry that is considerably more nauseating than yours” which Emily takes as a compliment, Edgar going on to say “In fact, I will admit….I detect in your poetics, a concise resignation to morbidity that I personally find exhilarating.”

It is a joy to watch Weiner dial up those comedic elements while at the same time expressing his terrified awe surrounding the mysteries of life, his fear of death, and his struggle to resolve his present dilemma.  Here he has the help of Emily.

Margery Lowe is the veteran of fifteen appearances on the Dramaworks stage.  Her versatility as an actress shines in the part of Emily Dickinson, with shades of some zaniness juxtaposed to the gravitas of the character of Emily Dickinson.  Lowe’s Dickinson ranges from being an uncertain, sheltered woman, entirely inexperienced in the ways of the world, unlike Poe, to being a poet of unmatched greatness, her inner world immeasurable.   And if you’re looking for verisimilitude, it also helps that Lowe is about the size of Dickinson and with similar hair coloring.  Another doppelganger!

Lowe exhibits all the emotions from bewilderment, to fear, to being dismissive of Poe’s work such as The Raven (“You rhymed ‘lattice’ with ‘thereat is’? It’s no wonder someone’s trying to kill you”). She’s coy about having Poe read some of her poems, and at last amazingly tempted to leave her universe (but asking plaintively “Will I be safe from the enormity of living?”).  Lowe announces her decision as a central truth of Dickinson’s art: “I am the queen of infinite space here in my room ….I fear the rest of the world might prove tiny.”  It’s a bravo performance to pull all of this off, particularly staying grounded in comedy of which Lowe is a master such as when she breathlessly says to Edgar, “You praised my morbidity! I am so happy!”

Avoiding spoilers, the play inexorably moves to a conclusion shaped by the two characters, one most audiences will find gratifying, even breathtaking, the climax eliciting an audible gasp from the audience, a touch of magical realism, enhanced by lighting and color. 

Both must live their lives, for whatever the duration.  For all of us, “Living is shockingly brief.”  And for Poe and Dickinson, in particular, “The words are the only living, lasting things we have.”  Since Lowe and Weiner have been on the stage opposite one another several times before, their chemistry has been honed to perfection.

PBD Producing Artistic Director William Hayes directs the play and has been involved since its gestation, purposely picking local actors, Margery Lowe and Gregg Weiner to go with him and the playwright on the journey from the Dramaworkshop to the Main Stage.  He wisely concentrates on the comedic elements of the play, making sure the jokes and quirky dialogue are highlighted.  Comedy is always an audience pleaser while the dark drama of the play, the tug of war between living and dying, is always disturbing but should stimulate mindful conversation.  It is life’s one unconditional.

Hayes also relies heavily on his technical crew to bring the play to fruition.   Scenic design by Michael Amico is simply stunning, while realistically depicting what could pass as Emily Dickinson’s 19th century bedroom, but symbolically casting that room through time and space, enveloping it in the wild world of Edgar Allan Poe.  So, like the play, there are unconventional elements.

Lighting design by Paul Black is particularly critical to the play.  Here is a room supposedly lit by candles.  As they are extinguished or lit, lighting has to gradually anticipate each action, it being jarring to just turn the spots on and off.  It all comes across so naturally, as does the shift from light to darkness during the more ominous moments in the play.  Watch the lighting at the very beginning as Emily stands at her window, the snow falling, lit like a Rembrandt portrait.  Breathtaking.

Usually sound is merely to establish mood, but here sound is more integral to the action.  Sound design by David Thomas heightens the suspenseful moments, the storm raging outside, the wind whirling when the window is blown open, the banging of the coffin as it is dragged up the stairs.  There is the terrifying crying out of Poe’s doppelganger, “Poe, Poe, Poe!”  And here and there we hear a musical interlude, particularly at the beginning, classical violin and piano to (falsely) establish just another calm night in the life of Emily Dickinson.  When Poe tells his tale of being rescued from the coffin, the sound effects of the story are like those used in movies, unusual on stage, but eerily appropriate for this production.

The one technical element which has little room for departure from reality is the magnificent costumes by Brian O’Keefe.  Emily is known for being a “lady in white” especially later in life, so O’Keefe complies with a beautiful costume, ostensibly white under the lights but actually a shade of grey, with some gold thread to counteract the grey.  The dress is slightly ethereal, as is her poetry.  Poe meanwhile, known to be usually in black, is indeed dressed in a dark jacket, but with a ruby waistcoat and pinstripe pants, depicting his once outrageously profligate and debauched lifestyle.

As Emily says, “Words endure, Mr. Poe. They endure.”  And so are those of playwright Joseph McDonough, who has already been commissioned for a new play during Dramaworks’ 2019 season.  Edgar and Emily is sure to provide gratification as well as enlightenment to those who are open to the experience of an absurdist drama about two of our most famous poets.

*Poem number 449 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth,—the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.


“I cannot tell how Eternity seems. It sweeps around me like a sea… Thank you for remembering me. Remembrance — mighty word”  -- Emily Dickinson

Photographs of Margery Lowe as Emily Dickinson and Gregg Weiner as Edgar Allan Poe are by Samantha Mighdoll

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Summer Comings and Goings

The last weekend of July we drove up to Boston to see our son, Chris. The plan was to check into the Downtown Doubletree, leave our car, and eventually meet up with Chris at his new apartment in the gentrified Seaport district. We used my new Uber account there for the first time. Had we known how easy and inexpensive it would be we could've stayed further outside the center of the city. After having lunch with him we enjoyed a long walk around the Rowes Wharf, only steps from his home, with a beautiful view of tall ships and small fleets of pleasure boats and pedestrian bridges overflowing with visitors.  Chris’ new apartment is in a completely redesigned building from 1899, his huge window facing directly into the Federal Reserve building with incredible views of downtown Boston, a professional building in every way.  This makes his life much easier, being able to walk to work as a data systems supervisor for an investment firm, a job he loves (how many people can say that nowadays?).  We capped off the visit with a great dinner at Smith and Wollensky.

The next morning we drove to Amherst to visit our friends Art and Sydelle who are renting a house near their daughter and her family. After meeting them for lunch at Atkins Farms, they took us to the Yiddish Book Center which houses the largest collection of Yiddish books in North America on the campus of Hampshire College.   

It was one man’s remarkable vision to preserve over one million of these treasured books.  It was truly amazing to see this literature being reclaimed and now digitized by a team of volunteers.  I had no idea that there was such an extensive trove of Yiddish literature.  When we departed from our friends, Ann and I decided to revisit The Emily Dickinson Museum, one of my favorite places in Amherst and once again signed up for their 60 minutes tour.  Since we were last there some of the rooms have been further restored, particularly Emily’s bedroom where she spent her days writing in a bright corner overlooking much of downtown Amherst.

Before the tour I had some fun reciting some of the poems I know by heart in unison with one of the docents.  I also chatted with a Chinese woman who had breathlessly arrived, fearing she was late for the last tour of the day, having driven three hours with her husband and child.  She was no stranger to Emily Dickinson’s poems, having translating many into Chinese for publication there.  We chatted about the similarities between Dickinson’s and Chinese poetry, which on their surfaces boast simplicity, with deep, meaningful undercurrents.

We returned to our hotel to freshen up for dinner with Art and Sydelle, their daughter Maddy, and her young and precocious son, Eli.  Unfortunately there was a massive thunderstorm on the way and the restaurant where we were to meet for dinner was closed that night.  Serendipitously, we ended up meeting everyone at a wonderful Chinese restaurant where we ate family style, happily sharing several delicious platters of food!

Bright and early the following day, we were on our way to The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown situated on a 140 acre campus, surrounded by the Taconic, Green Mountain and Berkshire ranges.  This was our first visit and we were very interested in seeing the new very modern entrance addition and 1 acre reflecting pool set amid expansive lawns.   

But in truth we made this special trip because they have just installed the first ever exhibit on “ Van Gogh and Nature”, using works on loan from some of the most noted van Gogh Collections in the world.  These paintings were primarily from the last 10 years of his life and were showcased in five rooms in the new wing of the Museum. 

Getting there proved more difficult than we could have imagined. It was all back roads to Williamstown from Amherst, roads I normally love to travel, but the bitter winter had left its mark on New England.  It seems every other turn was blocked with detours because of roadwork and at one point we were having difficulty getting there.  So we arrived about an hour later than we had hoped but luckily got one of the last parking spaces within walking distance to the museum.  The entrance reminds me of the monolith from the film 2001 – a granite enigma – trying to figure out how to get in!

Then there was the permanent collection of priceless French Impressionists, artwork and sculptures.  As moving as the Van Gogh exhibit was, I liked the permanent collection as much, painters I personally relate to, particularly the powerful seascapes of Winslow Homer and the scenes of the American West by Frederick Remington.  Ann, predictably and understandably was enthralled by the French Impressionist paintings, the Renoir collection in the permanent collection in particular and lingered there.

Perhaps the high point for me, though, was the display of the grandest Steinway ever made, the Model D Pianoforte Steinway which was commissioned by financier Henry Marquand in 1885.

In between seeing the Van Gogh and the permanent collection, we paused for a wonderful lunch at one of the Clark Institute restaurants.  By mid afternoon we started to think about the long ride back to Norwalk, half the distance on local roads and again we had to zig and zag, making it a long and grueling four hour trip home.

Only two nights later we had tickets to the Westport Country Playhouse to see A R Gurney’ s Love and Money, a world premiere.

I’ve written about the Westport Country Playhouse before, a venerable landmark in Westport since the early 1930’s.  Just one look at some of the old billboards and memorabilia in the lobby evokes deep and fond memories. We’ve been going there for some 45 years now, and while it has changed, it has changed to stay the same, to present plays of meaning to the community.

For many years Paul Newman’s restaurant, The Changing Room, stood adjacent to the playhouse (both Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were active in the theater’s success).  Now Positano -- which had been near the beach -- moved into that space and Ann and I had dinner there before the show, an enjoyable dining experience.

What better place to premier A.R. Gurney’s Love and Money than the Westport Country Playhouse, near the center of the universe of the play’s subject, the enigma of the WASP?  Cheever had defined the very species and Gurney has now attempted to dramatize its fading years of glory.

Gurney has been heavily influenced by Cheever and in fact as a tribute to the great short story writer he created a dramatization of some of his stories some twenty years ago, A Cheever Evening, one that I read when I was working on my own dramatization of some Raymond Carver stories.

Gurney used more than a dozen Cheever short stories to create his vision of what Cheever might have composed himself if he were a dramatist.  I’ve never seen the play performed but maybe it will be revived on the heels of Gurney’s new play.  Cheever and Gurney are students of this privileged, melancholic, frequently inebriated class, one to which it is time to say goodbye.

Unfortunately the play is not primetime ready yet and although the cast includes the consummate actress Maureen Anderman, who not long ago we had seen at Dramaworks in A Delicate Balance, her presence is not enough to save what we thought was a very contrived plot intended to mark the passing of the WASP species. Unlike Cheever, whose characters mostly aspired to money or had the pretense of money, this is about real money and how it alters relationships.

Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) feels tainted with loads of WASP money from her deceased husband.  Her two children had directly or indirectly been destroyed by their wealth and/or alcoholism, and she is determined to leave most of her money to charity.  Against the advice of her attorney, Harvey Abel (“ably” played by Joe Paulik), she has no intent to leave the money to her two "zombie" grandchildren and then, suddenly -- a young black man arrives on her doorstep claiming to be the child of her deceased daughter – and thus another grandchild has been added to the mix.  Let the drama and comedy begin! – or at least attempt to begin.   From there a number of non sequiturs that don’t seem to be organic to the plot are thrown at the audience, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and a number of zingers at the encroaching political oligarchy and foibles of modern day life. 

Cole Porter of course is emblematic of the WASP culture and a couple of his songs are suddenly introduced as a young Julliard student, Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim), comes to inspect Cornelia’s player piano which is programmed to play only Porter, Jessica bursting into song.  The young black man, Walter Williams (played by Gabriel Brown) who is after his own fortune, claims he is nicknamed “Scott” because of his love of Fitzgerald (who ironically lived in Westport briefly with Zelda) and in particular his affection for The Great Gatsby.  

While Love and Money is billed as a world premiere production, it is a play in development, gearing up for an off-Broadway run at the Signature Theatre.  It needs work -- an organic fluidity that seems to be lacking and a more believable plot.

In the program notes Gurney says at the age of 84, I assumed this play would probably be my last.  As its various characters leave the stage at the end, I felt I was figuratively going with them.  But now that the excitement of an actual production is taking place, I am reminded of an adage from the Jewish culture, which is in many was replacing us: “Wasps go without saying goodbye.  Jews say goodbye and won’t leave.” So now, in my golden years, with perhaps another play or two already churning around in my head, I’ve decided to be Jewish.   Let us hope one of our great social-comedic playwrights has a few more plays up his sleeve, and improves the present work.  Perhaps he should reread his own A Cheever Evening?
To conclude our busy week, Ann’s niece and nephew Regina and Angelo visited with their growing children, Forest and Serena last weekend.  We haven’t seen them in a year and a half – what a difference time makes when kids are approaching their early teens.  Jonathan and Anna were here as well, for lunch and then a boat ride on a beautiful day.