Dead Poet Doubleheader! Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath and Three Women
When we think about Sylvia Plath, a lot of clichés come to mind: the tragic suicide, the totem of patriarchal oppression, earnest female friends clutching The Bell Jar. What these stereotypes obscure is her exquisite poetry. And sadly, thats exactly whats missing at 59E59s two-play mini-festival of Plath-related works. In her insipid one-woman show, Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, Elisabeth Gray cant decide whether to satirize or celebrate the poet. Robert Shaws worthy but ponderous rendition of Plaths only dramatic workthe fugue-like radio play Three Women (1961)dissolves her hard-edged lines in sobs, turning an anguished meditation on motherhood into what resembles a mawkish sequel to The Vagina Monologues.
Grays play (inexplicably written under the pseudonym Edward Anthony, and indulgently directed by Daniel S. Zimbler) begins with the money shot: When we enter the theater, Plath surrogate Esther Greenwoodnamed for the Bell Jar heroineis already lying with her head in the oven. But she quickly revives, and, high on fumes, cavorts in the netherland between life and death. Using the asinine device of a TV cooking show called Better Tomes and Gardens, Esther presents her life story as a recipe for suicide: take a little ambition, throw in a philandering husband and some squalling kids, and before you know it, youre making baked brains (Esthers adulterous spouse is named, risibly, Ned Pews). Hang on to your ire because theres more: Her sidekick is a burbling, lit-up oven (yes, seriously) named Olson.
Wish belongs to the genre of smug collegiate play that assumes that the only value of a literary education is being able to make clever little jokes. (If you like yuks about pathetic phallus-y, this is your show.) When Gray grasps at poetic experience, she utters streams of annoying alliterations or platitudes about writer-prophets. A solitary performer might have evoked the loneliness of the poets craftinstead, the play makes poetry seem like a batty pastime. As its first image predicted, its dead on arrival. When Esther finally sticks her head back in the oven, we wonder why she bothered to take it out in the first place.
Shaws production of Three Women is less odious, but no more illuminating. Plaths allegorical piece tracks the introspective voices of three women in and around a maternity ward undergoing harrowing periods of alienation, panic, and fierce love through the passing seasons, from bleak fall to renewing spring.
Here, the plays origins as radio drama come through painfully: Unable to concoct stage images to match Plaths searching text, or to allow the performers to deliver it simply, Shaw directs them to gesticulate naturalistically; theyre often uncertain if they should be talking to us or each other. Apparently afraid that Plaths lines wont register, the tin-eared company distorts the verse with tearful over-emphasis, or illustrates with literal-minded pantomime. Three Womens painstaking phrases deserve a correspondingly fresh-minted theatrical approach.
But, every so often, a line makes it past the overacting, and hits you with its gorgeous precision. The plays lyrical ending: The little grasses/Crack through stone, and they are green with life.
This is how we should remember Plath.
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