Jack Quinn

Jeannie Lieberman

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity
By: Deirdre Donovan

Shining a light on a triad of women writers—Dorothy Parker, Emily Dickinson, and Anne Sexton—the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity offers us 3 unique productions this June. All three plays lean heavily on the literary works of its writers to spin out their biographical tales. Here is a good chance to get acquainted with these female writers whose personal demons spurred them on to great achievements. Each drama will likely whet your appetite to find out more about the wordsmith extraordinaire and how her art came into existence.

Those Whistling Lads. Dorothy Parker was always a force to be reckoned with, and Those Whistling Lads tells us why. Adapted by Maureen Van Trease and produced by the Third Eye Theatre Company, the production attempts to scratch beneath the wisecracks of the writer and offer us a true portrait of the artist. Admittedly, this drama is too diminutive to give us anything more than a good dollop of “Dottie.” But this is no sentimental journey. It is an authentic draught of the satiric poet, short story writer, and critic who made a lasting impression on the literary world with her stints at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker magazine.

The action begins with the umpteenth tour group arriving at the home of Harold Ross, the legendary founder and editor of the New Yorker. In his literary spiel, the Tour Guide mentions that Ross was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s. Of course, the name of Dorothy Parker pops up—and her ghost arrives as if on cue. “Dottie” (as she was affectionately dubbed) eclipses the tour group with her imposing presence and surefire wit. But more importantly, she has arrived on the scene—quite literally--to set the record straight.

And she does. We listen to many of her oft-quoted one-liners incorporated into the fabric of the drama (That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say No in any of them). Directed with a light touch by Bricken Sparacino, the piece doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive look at the life of Parker but plays out like a series of vivacious snapshots of the writer. It takes snippets from five of her poems and five of her short stories, and fashions them into colorful vignettes. Her friendships, her mercurial love affairs, her battle with the bottle are well-indexed in this show. Parker attempted suicide four times, and in this work we get a searing look into Parker’s state of mind and the desperate situation that nudged her to attempt such self-destructive acts.

In writing this biographical piece, Trease has Dorothy alternately speak directly to the audience and smoothly transition into the main action. This theatrical device of the protagonist being both “outside” and “within” the story works splendidly. And the play’s title—Those Whistling Lads—may well serve as a tell-tale to Parker’s disposition and propensities in her romantic relationships. Trease’s “Dottie,” in fact, recites “Those Whistling Lads” in a witty turn early in the piece, and it captures the mood of the whole: “Oh, those whistling lads, much as I wrote about keeping away from them, I never took my own best advice.”

This playlet won’t tell all, but it will pull you into the story of “Dottie.” The bilaterally talented Trease (as author and principal) deserves kudos for resurrecting this unforgettable wit of the mid-twentieth century.

Dickinson-Rhianna Basore as Emily, Photo by Al Germani-High
Dickinson. Just what motivated Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry? The reclusive Amherst poet who became a major literary figure has been a source of speculation for many scholars, biographers, and playwrights. Now playwright William Roetzheim has undertaken the formidable task. But, unfortunately, the results are more disappointing than illuminating.

This production brings us on a magical journey with a Playwright (Greg Wittman) who is struggling to write the definitive play about Emily Dickinson, as it were, in hard black lines. Exhausted with his Sisphean efforts to capture Dickinson as a fresh dramatic persona, the Playwright falls asleep, only to have a dream in which he meets the ghost of Emily Dickinson (Rhianna Basore) at her Amherst home. This dream within a play is a good idea. But once Wittman’s Playwright gets his bearings in this dreamscape, nothing of fresh consequence about Dickinson is actually revealed. Although he asks the poet a battery of questions that aims to extract the Truth out of her life and work, she cagily manages to sidestep his questions with cryptic lines from her dazzling canon. The riddling dialogue is effective to a point, but the dramatic situation fizzles out when the Playwright’s circuitous questions to the writer miss their mark time and again.

Ever since The Belle of Amherst (starring Julie Harris) made Emily Dickinson a chic celebrity on Broadway back in 1976, playwrights have been attempting to write a better, truer play about the poet. And it might happen some day. But this play is not it. In all fairness, Roetzheim has done his research, and done it well. But the work just doesn’t gel.

The actor playing Emily Dickinson, Rhianna Basore, seems miscast. She doesn’t project the gravitas needed for the role. Although she can enunciate the Dickinson verse well enough, she never seems to get beneath the skin of the poet. The historical Dickinson had a granite toughness in her mind that is not fully conveyed by Basore. There is just too much “coyness” in her acting, and not enough of the mystic sensibility or New England stoicism.

To be sure, the best parts of the play are the poems. And the most effective one staged is the famous “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” Used as a finale for the piece, it was the one time that the work came into its own. This closing scene captures the inimitable personality (and Voice) of the poet moving across an unknown—and eternal—landscape. If only Roetzheim could use this closing scene as a starting point for his play, the work would likely gain more weight.

Directed with a breezy hand by Al Germani, this short play gives you great lines from the poems, and some interesting anecdotes, but it doesn’t penetrate the poet. The old air of secrecy enveloping Dickinson remains solidly intact as we exit the theatre.

Hannah Wolfe, HER KIND: The Life and Poetry of Anne Sexton
photo by Marvin Orellana
Her Kind. Of all three offerings in the festival, Her Kind is by far the best production. Written by Hannah Wolfe, and featuring the poetry of Anne Sexton, this drama brings the controversial poet of the 60s and 70s alive. Weaving dance and video together with a strong emphasis on character twists, the show is utterly riveting for its uncompromising honesty. Even if you aren’t familiar with Sexton’s poetry, you can’t help but be mesmerized by this provocative show.

Shanara Gabrielle and Hannah Wolfe co-direct the multi-media work, and it runs like clockwork. Part of the power of the piece is that there are videos presenting actual testimonies from her therapist and an academic friend that bear witness to both her astonishing talent (Sexton won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die) and self-destructive urges. Sexton committed suicide by asphyxiation in 1974, and these videos infuse profound realism into the play as well as a deep sense of tragedy.

Hannah Wolfe, playing Anne Sexton, is well-cast in the role. She combines the intelligence and vulnerability of the poet, giving us a rich portrait of the artist. Wolfe has classical good looks, and her exceptionally expressive face, makes her a good choice for the part. What’s more, Wolfe has real stage presence and fully embodies her role as a brilliant poet with a dark side. There is self-affirmation in this piece, too. But it emanates mostly through the nine poems punctuating the narrative.

The supporting actors—Laurel Tentindo as Elizabeth, Collin Biddle as Doctor Orne, and Debra Kay Anderson as Erica Jong—round out the drama with pathos. Tentindo’s Elizabeth, playing Anne Sexton’s alter ego, deserves special mention for her exquisite dancing. Watching her execute her dance sequences with strong, clean lines is magical. A member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company since 2008, Tentindo (who also choreographed the play) is a dervish of an actor here. Without upstaging Wolfe’s Anne, she acts as an ideal foil for the protagonist.

The poems presented in Her Kind are vintage Sexton: “Consorting with Angela,” “Wanting to Die,” “Your Face on the Dog’s Neck,” “Young,” and more. This production is not only a haunting tribute to the life and works of Anne Sexton, but it leaves the audience with a very painful question: Is literary brilliance a curse or a blessing?
Through June 28.

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, at 440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor.
Tickets: $18, Call (212) 352-3101 or http://www.planetconnectionsfestivity.org

Reviewer's bio Deirdre can be contacted at mailto:ddonovan5 @ nyc.rr.com

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