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, that’s exactly what’s missing at 59E59’s two-play mini-festival of Plath-related works. In her insipid one-woman show, Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, Elisabeth Gray can’t decide whether to satirize or celebrate the poet. Robert Shaw’s worthy but ponderous rendition of Plath’s only dramatic work—the 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.
Gray’s 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 Greenwood—named for the Bell Jar heroine—is 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, you’re making baked brains (Esther’s adulterous spouse is named, risibly, Ned Pews). Hang on to your ire because there’s 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 poet’s craft—instead, the play makes poetry seem like a batty pastime. As its first image predicted, it’s 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.
Shaw’s production of Three Women is less odious, but no more illuminating. Plath’s 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 play’s origins as radio drama come through painfully: Unable to concoct stage images to match Plath’s searching text, or to allow the performers to deliver it simply, Shaw directs them to gesticulate naturalistically; they’re often uncertain if they should be talking to us or each other. Apparently afraid that Plath’s lines won’t register, the tin-eared company distorts the verse with tearful over-emphasis, or illustrates with literal-minded pantomime. Three Women’s 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 play’s lyrical ending: “The little grasses/Crack through stone, and they are green with life.”
This is how we should remember Plath.