HOPE

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Written & performed by Hope Salas
Directed by Erika Latta

A cast of one: check. Autobiographical: check. Dysfunctional family: check. Quick changes of accent and costume, all designed to showcase the performer’s remarkable versatility: check and check.  New York theatergoers have seen this type of one-person presentation so many times that it’s hard to respond with anything other than an eye roll at the prospect of yet another performer running through a menu of eccentric characters and using the stage as a therapist’s couch. Thankfully, the occasional entry in the My Journey genre really does manage to be original and compelling. Thanks to the intriguing visual tone of the show, and the striking stage presence of its star, HOPE rises above the level of the average solo effort.

In the aftermath of a failed marriage, Hope (Hope Salas) self-medicates with booze, casual sex, and compulsive tidying of her tiny Manhattan apartment. This toxic routine is interrupted by an urgent phone call from Hope’s father:  Alice Mae, Hope’s mom, is in the hospital, and the prognosis isn’t good. The incident kickstarts an emotional odyssey for Salas, who, as she confronts her parents’ mortality, feels an intense need to understand what their lives were all about. Matching her childhood recollections with newly discovered details, Hope begins to answer painful questions, like why her mother felt the need to stifle young Hope’s performing aspirations. It turns out Alice, who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her drunken father, worried that her energetic daughter would attract the wrong kind of attention.  As Hope’s understanding of her parents’ world increases, she gradually finds the strength to meet her own life challenges.

Salas doesn’t shy away from from the harsh realities of her subject matter, but much of HOPE is also extremely funny. Under Erika Latta’s metronomic direction, Salas develops a self-deprecating tragicomic persona, embellished with fluid physicality and commedia dell’arte style asides. The ever-shifting moods and locations of the story are aided by Marsha Ginsberg’s efficient scenic design and Yuki Nakase’s painterly lighting. The video projections serve the story well in some scenes, such as old photos of Alice smiling through her pain. At other times, though, the projections feel superfluous. The live performance is all that is needed to hold our attention.

HOPE continues through October 13, 2018 at the Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street
New York, New York, Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1535774400000

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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