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A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop
by Rob Kendt

©2006 James Leynse
Amy Irving in A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop
Life trumps art in A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop, a one-woman play by Marta Góes about the mid-20th-century American poet that tells her story in the sort of naked, emotionally direct terms Bishop herself studiously side-stepped throughout her 50-year career. If one can read a veiled biography of Bishops troubled, madness-haunted life through her finely etched, economically constructed poems, Góes play drops the veil and spells it all out for us: Bishops long sojourn with her Brazilian lover, her alcoholism and frail health, her parched, orphaned childhood in Nova Scotia.

The miracle of Amy Irvings performance as Bishop is that it somehow retains a pained dignity, even a delicacy, in the midst of the shows tears and tumult. Its a heroic effort at times, but one doesnt feel the strain as the fine-boned Irving goes through the shows paces quietly, earnestly, probingly.

Góes play has moments no actor should be asked to play: short expository scenes, like the one in which Bishop turns to us and reports, "I just won the Pulitzer Prize"; or a bit of TV-movie psychodrama like the torturous, pleading argument Bishop has with her unseen lover, Lota; or the moment when Bishop must don a feather boa and express the excitement of a passing escola de samba, aided only by the heavy carnival drums blaring through Fitz Pattons sound design.

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But Irving pulls it off partly because shes an inspired match for Bishops sometimes coy, often penetrating, always circumspect voice, and partly because shes made what feels like a soul-deep investment in it. Shes particularly good at bringing to life snippets of Bishops poetry, which Góes has artfully interwoven into the descriptive dialogue and, at a few key junctures, sampled whole. Director Richard Jay-Alexander drops the lights to a deep ocher for these moments of poetic reflection.

Jay-Alexanders production is unfussily lavish for a solo show: Jeff Cowies set features a proscenium frame, lit by Russell Champas dusky lights and Zachary Borovays impressionistic projections, and a sleek turntable for scene changes. Indeed, the set may be overdressed at times, which only heightens the sense that were watching a domestic drama minus many of the players.

©2006 James Leynse
Amy Irving in A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop
The net effect, though, is to stress Bishops isolation and diffidence. We dont see her doing much writing, but instead witness her tentative efforts to build a life with Lota, then struggle to hold the relationship together. For an introvert, she is exceptionally outer-focused: not only on the images and sensations that inspire her poems, but on the subtle social signals that tell her how shes faring among Brazils intelligentsia, as well as on the emotional climate of her affair with Lota. Indeed, at times it seems we hear more about Lotas fortunes in Brazilian politics than about the progress of Bishops poetry. But then this seems somehow true to type: As portrayed here, Bishop occasionally comes off like a needy enabler too involved in other peoples lives to attend to her own.

When she finally must ring down the curtain on the Brazilian drama, she does so with the heartbreaking resignation expressed by her most famous poem, "One Art" ("The art of losing isnt hard to master"). Though Góes tags on an explanatory coda, this poem is the shows true ending, not least because it crystallizes Bishops signature restraint. Its an old acting truism that the way to draw tears onstage is to try desperately hard not to cry, and here Irving channels the similar potency of Bishops art, which consists in containing reservoirs of feeling within the spare but sturdy frame of verse. "There are too many waterfalls here," Bishop remarks dryly of Brazil at one point, and that also seems true of Góes overly weepy play. Thank goodness, then, for Irving, who, despite the plays strenuous emotional exercise, masters what Octavio Paz called Bishops "enormous power of reticence."

A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop
By Marta Góes
Translated by Mario Góes, Julia Beirao and Amy Irving
Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters

 
Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 3/30/2006 3:50:00 PM

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