A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 29, 2006
In the one-character play A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop, Brazilian playwright Marta Goes tells the story of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop’s sojourn in Brazil, and her long and tumultuous relationship with Lota Macedo de Soares, a Brazilian intellectual and sometime politician. There is certainly a story to be told there, a great romance: American poet on fellowship travels to South America by freighter, intending to disembark in Rio, spend a few days with acquaintances there, and then see the whole of South America. Instead, she has a massive allergic reaction to cashew fruit, winds up in the hospital, and during her recuperation falls in love and stays in Brazil, and with her lover, for 15 years.
But Goes has not found a successful way to tell that story, nor a compelling way to bring the character of Elizabeth Bishop to life. The style of the play veers between oddly unemotional descriptive monologues and extremely awkward one-sided conversations where Bishop is either on the telephone or in theory addressing someone in another room whose responses we never hear. But, as often with such contrivances, Goes takes such pains to make sure everything we don’t hear is explicitly contained in what we do hear, that the dialogue becomes strained and never convincingly conversational. And because of this unconvincing faux dialogue, the invisible/absent Lota, often the “other side” of these conversations, sometimes seems a more interesting character than Bishop herself.
And neither in the conversations nor the monologues do we get a real sense of the emotional or intellectual life of the character. One large problem with the play is that Goes’s Bishop seems to bear little resemblance to the Elizabeth Bishop one might imagine from reading Bishop. Now, there’s an interesting challenge there for both writer and audience—what if the private person were, in fact, a woman who differs greatly from the persona a reader might imagine?—but in order for the fictional private construction to be believable, it must be possible to imagine her coexisting with the evidence we have of the public person, and I did not feel that to be the case here.
The play includes citations from Bishop’s own poetry, prose, and letters, which deepen the contrast between the real Bishop’s vivid writing and the fictional Bishop’s awkward descriptions of her life. Where the Bishop of her own writing is warm, sharply observant, nature- and animal-loving, wry, deeply devoted to her friends, self-deprecating, relentlessly critical of her own (and others’) work, and boldly—sometimes painfully—honest about her own shortcomings, Goes’s Bishop seems merely whiny, depressed, and completely emotionally dependent on Lota.
There are also moments that seem both out of character and deeply anachronistic—I cannot imagine that anyone in the late 1950s, let alone Bishop, who only ever referred to Lota even in correspondence as “her friend,” would have described Lota’s appointment to a government position as an important victory for “homosexual women.”
An overly fussy production does not help. Amy Irving gives the best performance she can under the circumstances, striving to locate the wit and the charm in the writing. But rather than trying to find a physical throughline for the piece, director Richard Jay-Alexander has emphasized the choppiness of the scene breaks by moving each scene to a different, fairly elaborately realized physical location—which means that Irving spends a great deal of time walking from “place to place” on the stage’s turntable. Jeff Cowie’s set, with elaborate new furniture swiveling onstage every few minutes, and Zachary Borovay’s beautiful but over-the-top projections, are lovely to look at but distract from rather than enhance the play.