nytheatre.com review by Montserrat Mendez
June 15, 2009
William Roetzheim's "well researched" Dickinson has a tiny problem. It's the playwright. I'm not speaking of Mr. Roetzheim, but of the role of "the playwright" in the play. It is the one aspect of this simple yet beautifully staged production that nearly derails it.
Dickinson is part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festival, and I, for one, applaud them for throwing an Eco-Friendly Festival, in which every aspect of the experience has been considered. I particularly loved the waiting area, with the musicians and the eco-friendly message. And super friendly staff. It is these details that I appreciated most from the off-off Broadway experience, where often budgets are miniscule but hearts are large.
The conceit of Dickinson is that a playwright is writing a piece about the ever mysterious Emily Dickinson, and as it is in pieces such as this one, the poetess comes to life in his dreams. She is not, however, as the playwright first imagines; within seconds of meeting her he says, "I didn't know you were such a bitch," and for a few pages it seems like a clash of the egos is about to begin, between one very dead idealized poet and one very much alive playwright dealing with mounting pages of failure. These first few minutes are exhilarating; the possibilities of the play are wide open. It clips along with banter between playwright and muse as they clash, flirt, and push each other's buttons. Slowly however, the playwright's role becomes much less, and Emily's role becomes much more.
The problem with the role of "the playwright" (an actual character name is not given) appears about 30 minutes into the play, when it seems like his role is over, and he becomes a passive witness to the events of Emily's life. Until this point Roetzheim, has done a nice job in balancing a play about both Emily Dickinson and a playwright's struggle to write a piece worthy of her. However, this theme is not sufficiently explored. And thus he becomes a device and not a fully realized character.
While the playwright devolves into merely a conduit to guide us through Emily's life, Emily becomes a full force of nature, and boy oh boy does Rhianna Basore bite into the role with the zest of a veteran actor. She is—and I say this without over-hyping my praise—simply magnificent. Her Emily goes from demure to naughty, from athletic to weak, from a pillar of strength to utterly damaged child often within the same beat, and seeing this young actor take the reigns of the play so daringly was inspirational.
Assisting our heroine in the journey is an able cast (Diana Sparta has an especially wonderful range) and the director Al Germani, who creates a full, specific world out of nearly nothing. Every movement is carefully thought out to tell the story; it is some of the best staging I've seen in a long time. The movement is fluid, his placement of the actors absolutely right on, and for a play which works on such a simple level, he manages to achieve moments of absolute breathtaking magic. You know, you never truly appreciate a director's contribution until you see someone do it so right.
There is one staged moment in Dickinson that illustrates both the problem and glory of this play better than dialogue ever could. It is the towering image of Emily standing on a table, while pages of the script are under her feet. It is perhaps an unintentional image, in which she stands on top of the play, so powerful a figure that the playwright's words cannot do her justice. Dickinson is not a perfect play, but it is a perfectly compelling one, with a dazzling performance in the title role that shouldn't be missed.