BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP: AN ENCOUNTER WITH EMILY DICKINSON

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Written by James Melo
Directed by Donald T. Sanders.

Given the perennial relevance of her writing, and the mystery surrounding her personal life, it’s no surprise that Emily Dickinson is undergoing a cultural reboot. Departing from the dotty-recluse persona found in earlier works like THE BELLE OF AMHERST, recent works have presented a more sensual, independent-minded and witty portrait of the poet. In the 2016 film, A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon portrayed Dickinson as a spirited soul whose prodigious intellect and wild heart refused to be tamed by 19th Century strictures. And in the theater world, director Donald T. Sanders and playwright James Melo have attempted to take a fresh look at Dickinson’s life and work through a multimedia presentation comprised of spoken word, live music and video projection. The results of their effort are uneven, but the production has its share of bright spots.

In keeping with the tone of voice found in such poems as “Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”, actress Angelica Page imbues Emily with both childlike spontaneity and pained wisdom. For much of the play, she doesn’t speak at all, but moves about her bedroom alternating between writing, contemplation and eccentric activities like sewing little books in which to secrete her poetry. Musical interludes are provided by Max Barrosa at the piano, Victoria Lewis, Melanie Clapiès, Chieh Fan-Yiu and Ari Evan on strings, and soprano Kristina Bachrach. The chamber pieces, written by pioneering American composer Amy Beach, mirror the shifting moods and searching energy of Emily’s writing. With music pulsing in the background, David Bengali’s  projections depict a host of video imagery, all relevant -metaphorically and/or literally – to Dickinson’s life and creative process. In one sequence, time lapse photography chronicles the life cycle of a flower from blossom to decay. In another, a work of art, sketched by an unseen hand,  grows from a patch abstract lines into a pastoral scene. In yet another, a montage of battlefield tableaux captures the carnage of the Civil War.

All these visual and sonic elements combine to create a collage of ideas that is, if not quite cohesive, at least enjoyable. But there are some missteps along the way. For one, the films are projected on a small, jaggedly- shaped screen that is decorated with a pattern of scribbled notes (presumably a page of Emily’s journal). It works as a set piece,  but when the projected imagery hits the screen, the scrawled letters prove distracting and muddle the beauty of the moving image.  This proves especially problematic in the second act, when the projections become the dominant element of the show. There are odd choices in the script as well. Lines like “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul” are rephrased to sound like spontaneous dinner conversation. The attempt, it seems, is to make Emily less intimidatingly authorish and more accessible to modern audiences, but some of the iambic power of Dickinson’s verse is lost in the process.

All in all, BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP is a technically impressive and sincere tribute to a worthy subject, but it lacks an overall vision to make its disparate elements mesh.

BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP continues October 21, 2018 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: http://www.romanticcentury.org

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