Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Theater Review: Emily

Christopher Bonewitz and Elizabeth A. Davis
This Drama about Dickinson Never Finds its Beat
By Lauren Yarger
Not much is known for sure about poet Emily Dickinson except that she led a reclusive life in Victorian-era Amherst, Massachusetts, that she might have had a romance, she wore a lot of white dresses and bucked poetic tradition to write rather depressing, oddly structured poems. After viewing Chris Cragin’s Emily: An Amethyst Remembrance being staged by Firebone Theater Off-Broadway on Theater Row, we know little more.

Directed by Steve Day, the drama unfolds backwards in time to explore the life of Emily (Elizabeth A. Davis) and her relationships with those closest to her: brother Austin (Jared Hausman), his wife Sue (Jenny Ledel), sister Lavinia (Misty Foster Venters) and her preceptors Newton and Mr. Williamson (both played by Christopher Bonewitz). All of the actors, except Davis, also play other characters along the way.

The time-tripping plot (which isn’t always clear except for dates and scene titles projected onto the set) never gives us any real insight into Emily, however, except that she was rather self-absorbed and uncaring, apparently. Davis, dressed and coiffed just as the stark, plain image you have in your mind of Dickinson (Victoria Depew, costumes) never develops beyond that. Why does she wear white? Why does she retire to her father’s study and refuse to see people, even Mr. Wilkinson? And why does the family tolerate her behavior (Emily decides to move her bedroom into the study, apparently without caring whether her father will object or whether he might be inconvenienced to be put out of his study)?

Like punctuation or line breaks that can disrupt the structure of a poem, Day’s choice of stark blocks and a large door for set pieces (Rachel Beckerman, scenic and lighting design) disrupts the play by drawing attention to the constant moving of the pieces by the cast members to create a table, or a bed, or a piano. At one point, Emily hoists the cumbersome door out of it’s pipe-fitted fixture (where it actually plays the role of a door in the center of the stage) to move it to its next incarnation causing us to wonder if one of the many mysteries about the poet might have been that she was a secret body builder.

The door doubles as a table, but only sometimes (and doesn't even get to play a door in some scenes, where the actors knock on invisible ones). In one scene, the family gathers around an invisible table. They also chew on invisible hot cross buns. It’s really annoying and at intermission when a member of the stage crew began drilling the box pieces in preparation for their further use in Act 2, I was tempted to offer my services to use a chainsaw to break up that really annoying door.

Most significantly, the use of minimal set fails to highlight Emily’s isolation from the world around her. There is no world around her in this production, so she becomes the main focus and such a close up look isn’t flattering. She’s cold and selfish and rather uninteresting. Rolling on a piano, a Victorian sofa and bed and throwing some real buns on a plate would have made her seem less severe.

Day also fails to coax the best performances out of the actors. A shawl and a pair of glasses hardly changes Ledel from young Sue into Emily’s mother. Bonewitz resorts to a high-pitched clipped accent to distinguish Williamson from Newton.

Interestingly, the scene opening Act 2 gives us a glimpse of what might have been, It’s a comprehensively staged scene in which Austin and Sue marry, followed by their reception. There’s dancing (Kimi Nikaidoh lends some very nice choreography), conversation and a glimpse into these people unencumbered by boxes and doors, and it’s very interesting, but alas, it is too brief.

Cragin offers a nice blend of storytelling and Dickinson’s poems, with excerpts sometimes recited by Emily, sometimes by multiple characters, but the production lacks cohesiveness to be able to convey the tale effectively.

I really enjoyed, however, the title of scene 4: “The Awe Full Door.” Change that to “awful” and there you have it.

Emily plays through Sept. 27 at the Kirk Theater, 410 West 42nd St. For tickets visit http://www.ticketcentral.com/ or by calling 212-279-4200.

Christians might also like to know:
• FIREBONE THEATRE produces and develops works that explore immortality (fire) and mortality (bone). Their first production was the world Premiere of the play Deadheading Roses by resident playwright Chris Cragin at The Lamb’s Little Theatre in Times Square. In 2008 they presented the North American premiere of Refuge of Lies by Ron Reed, at Theatre Row. Recently they produced A Mysterious Way, which was performed in a NYC subway station.
• EMILY was originally workshopped at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, Canada, (http://www.pacifictheatre.org/.)

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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