Review by Byrne Harrison
The Emily Dickinson presented in William Roetzheim's Dickinson is nothing like the woman they teach about in school, and thank goodness for that. While that Emily is interesting, in a literary way, this one fascinates in front of our eyes. Dickinson bills itself as a "well-researched" story about the poet. What it uncovers is mostly conjecture - how does one prove that which is merely hinted at in poems and letters? - but what Roetzheim imagines brings an interesting new angle to Dickinson's story and a great jumping off point for further discussion.
Part of the beauty of Roetzheim's play is that it spins out Emily's secrets bit by bit, and always with pieces of her work backing up the hypotheses. He does so in a very theatrical style that keeps the audience interested in the way that a lecture never would. Dickinson imagines a playwright (Greg Wittman) who is finishing a five-play cycle on the poets that most influenced 20th Century poetry. Having had no problems with the other four plays, he is confounded by Emily Dickinson - unable to get a sense of who this mysterious person was. After another drunken, fruitless evening, he finds himself in the same room with Emily Dickinson. She may be a ghost, a vision, or a delusion, but whatever she is he yearns to hear her story from her point of view. Emily (Rhianna Basore) has other plans. She is coy and cagey, and does not want to be understood. More importantly, there are things in her life she wants to hide even from herself. Painful memories that she will hint at, but doesn't want to examine.
Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game between Emily and the playwright that ultimately leads to more questions than answers.
While the play has an interesting premise, it would be stronger were the two characters more evenly matched. The playwright never really has a chance against Emily. Any points he scores during their interactions, almost always seem to be given to him by Emily out of grace or perhaps pity.
Much of this is due to the playwright being a somewhat underwritten role, but it also comes from the actors themselves. Basore throws herself into her role with an almost scary intensity. Her Emily is mercurial, leaping powerfully from emotion to emotion, scene to scene, moment to moment. Wittman's playwright is not that strong. He provides exposition, a sounding board for Emily, but he never comes across as her equal, or as a man who wants to master her so he can truly bring her to life in his play.
Director Al Germani shows his strength as a director and his background in dance and music. The direction in Dickinson often has the feel of choreography, and I mean that in a good way. The action is fluid, the stage pictures interesting, and Germani creates a flow in the production that complements the rhythm of both Dickinson's poetry and Roetzheim's dialogue.
While Dickinson is not without flaws, it offers a fascinating look at the 'warts and all' life of the poet. It is definitely a standout production in the Planet Connections festival.
Written by William Roetzheim
Directed by Al Germani
Vocals: Diana Sparta
Sound Design: Al Germani, Bill Kehayias
Costumes by the cast
Featuring: Rhianna Basore (Emily), Greg Wittman (The Playwright), Diana Sparta (All Other Female Roles), Charlie Riendeau (All Other Male Roles)
Planet Connections Theatre Festivity
440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor
June 13, 11 AM
June 14, 7 PM
June 15, 8:30 PM
June 17, 4 PM
June 19, 8:30 PM
June 20, 1 PM