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Emily Dickinson: Her Blameless Mystery

Posted: August 4th, 2009 | Arts & Entertainment, Theater Reviews | No Comments

By Charlene Baldridge
dickenson In any discussion, dissertation or drama about American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), there are bound to be unanswered questions. The poet’s output and the life that influenced it present vast enigmas.

Much of Dickinson’s voluminous correspondence was destroyed, and the only materials left are what remains of the correspondence and her body of work (more than 1,700 poems, most hidden and unpublished during her lifetime), which is densely packed and obtuse. The poems were written on bits of paper and backs of envelopes and stuffed into drawers in her house at Amherst, Mass.

Was she a victim of incest? Driven to insanity by her abuse? Was she a lesbian, repressed or not? Did she have love affairs with men throughout her life, or did her sexual life express itself only in her terse, impenetrable verse?

In William Roetzheim’s 75-minute, one-act play titled “Dickinson,” continuing at North Park Vaudeville through August 7, the playwright asks all these questions. He utilizes extant correspondence and poetry as well as his own questions. Indeed, Roetzheim places himself, or at least a character named Playwright (attractive Greg Wittman) squarely in the center of the action.

When the action begins the inebriated writer has passed out over his notes. Enter Dickinson (beautiful Rhianna Basore), who accuses him of being in her bedchamber (she’s right: sex seems to be his major
investigative preoccupation).

There is nothing outside the door save the void. Playwright tells Dickinson he needs help writing his play about her life. At first she seems pleased that he would bother. Except for her poems, she is a rather clean slate for a time, so the playwright relates facts about her later life, a clever dramatic device.

While delivering a lot of additional biographical information, the play utilizes two additional actors, Diana Sparta and Charlie Riendeau. They play the females and males in Emily’s life, among them her mother Emma (actually named Emily); her sister-in-law Susie; her stern father, Edward; her brother, Austin (Reindeau is touching in the brother’s scene of remorse); and writer Samuel Bowles and publisher Thomas Higginson, who may have been her lovers.

All these scenes, flashbacks and the attentions of the playwright are too much for poor Emily, who grows fatigued and must be laid down in her lovely lace dress with the red underwear. What patrons witness is a play as puzzling, frustrating and fragmented, and every bit as fascinating as the poet, her life and her poetry. It’s an unsettling evening and that is the point.

The interior romp provides quite a field day of the psyche for Lynx Theatre Artistic Director Al Germani, who is known for his visceral staging of humanity’s darker places. With the same company, Germani staged “Dickinson” earlier this year to critical acclaim at New York City’s Planet Connections 440 Studios.

All four actors are believable and touching, sympathetic and overwrought as required, and the use of musical concept by Germani and Bill Kehayias is effective, utilizing popular sayings and literature of the era.
Sparta sings sweetly and vibrantly. Germani creates a world on a postage stamp stage.
North Park Vaudeville seats 36 in relative comfort. Between scenes, the air conditioner runs and there is an overhead fan, so it was not uncomfortable despite the hot day.

Not to be missed by literary types, especially poets, “Dickinson” continues through August 7, playing at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, North Park Vaudeville, 2031 El Cajon Blvd., North Park. Tickets are $15-$18. www.northparkvaudeville.com or (619) 220-8663.

Charlene Baldridge is a freelance arts writer whose work also appears in the La Jolla Village News, Performances Magazine, sdtheatrescene.com, and newolderwoman.blogspot.com

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