By: Samuel L. Leiter
September 27, 2018: As indicated by the title of this dully undramatic but musically interesting play—well, not really a “play”—Emily Dickinson is the latest 19th-century artist receiving a biographical homage by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century (ERC). Their recent productions (all, like this one, directed by Don Sanders) have focused on such creative geniuses as painter Vincent Van Gogh (Van Gogh’s Ear) and composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart), the only examples of their work I’ve seen. (Works based on Arturo Toscanini and Hans Christian Andersen are scheduled for later in the season.)
Dickinson, of course, was the Massachusetts-born and raised poetess who lived a mostly secluded life, and whose lyrical poetry only became famous when it was published by relatives and friends after her death in 1886.
ERC specializes in expressing an artist’s life and work by mingling it with visual, verbal, and musical elements, each intended to support the others. Typically, musicians are visible on stage, there may be choreographic movement, and projections are essential.
The Van Gogh and Tchaikovsky works, for all their flaws, had elements of beauty, as does this one, but they also included, tenuous though it may have been, a sense of drama by introducing other persons into the biographical presentation. Because I Could Not Stop, by James Melo, although it features a notable actress, Angelica Page (daughter of Geraldine Page and Rip Torn), as Dickinson, is almost entirely without drama, at least in any conventional sense.
Instead, Because I Could Not Stop is essentially a concert of Amy Beach’s art music interrupted by Dickinson both reciting selected poems and ruminating on her miscellaneous personal reminiscences over a series of decades, most of them indicated by projected titles such as “1860s,” “1870s,” etc. Throughout, David Bengali’s projection design provides a variety of painterly nature images, some using time-lapse methods. Songbirds are a recurrent motif, perhaps as a symbol of the poet’s frequent use of avian imagery.
So little biographical information is offered in Dickinson’s own words that the piece depends on projections of historical data informing us of her family history (accompanied by photographic portraits), especially concerning her brother Austin’s extramarital affair. We also get lots of brief historical titles providing bullet points on contemporary events, like the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement, the Civil War, Alexander Graham Bell, and even—as if it were of earth-shaking import—the invention of Coca Cola.
At the end, after we’ve learned of Dickinson’s death, Amy Beach’s music plays on as we read note after note of the publishing fate of the poems discovered after Dickinson’s death.
The most prominent element of Vanessa James’s elegantly simple set, with musicians at one side and the principal acting space at the other, is a spiral-like layout on the floor of what are presumably manuscript pages of Dickinson’s poems. On that stage with Page is a gifted ensemble of five musicians, violinists Victoria Lewis, Mélanie Clapiés, violist Chieh-Fan Yiu, cellist Ari Evan, and pianist Max Barros.
Dressed in gray, simplified, period clothing (costumes are also by James) in the first half and white in the second (following an unnecessary 15-minute interval), they occasionally are recruited to perform choreographed movement as neutral figures in a poetic landscape, even engaging, for some reason, in closely staged versions of “Blind Man’s Bluff” or “Musical Chairs.”
Sturdily supporting the extensive musical interludes is the talented soprano, Kristina Bachrach, who sings poems by Robert Browning, Victor Hugo (in French, with English translation), Jessie Hague Nettleton, and one by Dickinson herself. It’s not clear why these other poets are represented, just as the words of the poems themselves are unclear when sung at an operatic level.
Meanwhile, when Page is not speaking, Sanders keeps her busy with minor domestic activities, now and then sipping wine, and even dusting furniture with the large quill she uses to write her poems. Page, who bears not the slightest resemblance to the poet, struggles to portray Dickinson as an ethereal creature, with now and then a twinkle of humor. However, burdened by a pseudo-British accent and the production’s artsy ambitions, she rarely succeeds in creating the kind of flesh and blood individual Julie Harris made of Dickinson in the one-woman play The Belle of Amherst, or that Joely Richardson came close to in a 2014 revival.
If you’re interested in Amy Beach’s music, I’d recommend Because I Could Not Stop. If you want to spend time with Emily Dickinson, you’d be better off waiting (however long it takes) for the next revival of The Belle of Amherst.
Because I Could Not Stop
Pershing Square Signature Center/Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 21, 2018
Photography: Shirin Tinati