The music for ERC presentations is usually contemporaneous with the subject of the shows set in the 19th century. However, this time the choice of composer Amy Beach (1867 – 1944) is of music written after Dickinson’s death in 1886. While attractive in itself, the somber, sad, melancholy chamber music gives the wrong tone and mood to Dickinson’s poems, suggesting she was at all times a depressive personality when much of her poetry was about the joy of nature.
The choice of the art songs (beautifully and expressively sung by soprano Kristina Bachrach) is equally strange. “Ah, Love But A Day!” to a poem by Robert Browning is similar to Dickinson’s verse, but the inclusion of the French “Chanson d’Amour” to a poem by Victor Hugo seems odd as we are not told whether the poet knew French or admired Hugo. Stranger still is the inclusion of “Stella Viatoris” to a poem by the minor poet Jessie Hague Nettleton, one that is far inferior to Dickinson’s work. The final selection, Ricky Ian Gordon’s setting of Dickinson’s own “Will There Really Be A Morning?” is fine but as the program notes relate there are 400 musical settings of Dickinson’s poems and this is only one of them.
Beginning in 1885, the last year of Dickinson’s life, the text drawn from her poems and letters has no arc and makes no statement about her life, unlike William Luce’s 1977 The Belle of Amherst which created a complete portrait of the poet. Many famous lines of poetry are detached from their sources and used as introductions to letters and prose statements which is rather disconcerting. The use of dates and landmarks of major events that took place during the poet’s life which are projected on a screen is rather meaningless as they seem to have had little or no effect on her.
Stranger still is the choice of Angelica Page to play Dickinson who looks rather too healthy to be the famously thin and sallow-faced writer known from the one famous photograph. She makes Dickinson sarcastic, arrogant, cynical, self-important and haughty which goes against the voice of the woman in the poems. At times she has been given arty stage directions like posing by a mantelpiece or sleeping on the ground next to what we assume is alongside of her father’s grave.
In the first half of the evening, costume designer Vanessa James has put Dickinson in all red, a color one cannot imagine this reclusive, shy woman wearing. The musicians wear black in the first half and white/beige in the second for no apparent reason. James’ set is stranger still. To the right of the grand piano is a Plexiglas table held up by two swans. Not only is this kitsch, but much too showy for the plain, homespun Dickinson. Hanging above this is a screen meant to look like pages of a notebook but is so off kilter that it is distracting. The videos designed by David Bengali projected on this screen sometimes complement the poems and music; at other times they are simply an intrusion. The floor is decorated with a spiral of manuscript pages that suggest a pop art design, one that is decades later than the 19th century in which the poet lived.
The 12 musical selections are subtly and beautifully played by the rotating chamber orchestra of five in varying combinations: Max Barros on piano, Victoria Lewis and Mélanie Clapiès on violin, Chieh-Fan Yiu on viola, and Ari Evan. While the music all tends to sound similar, there is a soothing, calming quality to the selections. A game of musical chairs and one of hide and seek with the soprano blindfolded chasing the musicians seem out of place except to suggest that Dickinson did not partake in the usual games of her contemporaries.
Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter with Emily Dickinson is an esoteric evening not meant for the ordinary theatergoer. Some will find the evening pretentious, others not true to the poet, and yet others enlightening. From any point of view, writer James Melo and director Donald T. Sanders, along with their designers, have made some unusual, unconventional choices in this portrait of the famed poet who lived a very reclusive life.
Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter with Emily Dickinson (through October 21, 2018)
Ensemble for the Romantic Century
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.TicketCentral.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission