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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 Bishop's troubled, madness-haunted life through her finely etched, economically constructed poems, Góes' play drops the veil and spells it all out for us: Bishop's long sojourn with her Brazilian lover, her alcoholism and frail health, her parched, orphaned childhood in Nova Scotia.

The miracle of Amy Irving's performance as Bishop is that it somehow retains a pained dignity, even a delicacy, in the midst of the show's tears and tumult. It's a heroic effort at times, but one doesn't feel the strain as the fine-boned Irving goes through the show's 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 Patton's sound design.

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But Irving pulls it off partly because she's an inspired match for Bishop's sometimes coy, often penetrating, always circumspect voice, and partly because she's made what feels like a soul-deep investment in it. She's particularly good at bringing to life snippets of Bishop's 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-Alexander's production is unfussily lavish for a solo show: Jeff Cowie's set features a proscenium frame, lit by Russell Champa's dusky lights and Zachary Borovay's impressionistic projections, and a sleek turntable for scene changes. Indeed, the set may be overdressed at times, which only heightens the sense that we're 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 Bishop's isolation and diffidence. We don't 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 she's faring among Brazil's intelligentsia, as well as on the emotional climate of her affair with Lota. Indeed, at times it seems we hear more about Lota's fortunes in Brazilian politics than about the progress of Bishop's poetry. But then this seems somehow true to type: As portrayed here, Bishop occasionally comes off like a needy enabler too involved in other people's 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 isn't hard to master"). Though Góes tags on an explanatory coda, this poem is the show's true ending, not least because it crystallizes Bishop's signature restraint. It's 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 Bishop's 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 play's strenuous emotional exercise, masters what Octavio Paz called Bishop's "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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