REVIEW: Wild Nights with Emily (Caffeine Theatre)

| March 13, 2010

The dead lesbian’s poet society?

 

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Caffeine Theatre presents:

 

Wild Nights with Emily

by Madeleine Olnek
directed by Meghan Beals McCarthy
at Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt
through April 11th
(more info)

review by Catey Sullivan 

Emily Dickinson: Spinster virgin in perpetually buttoned-up white, or sensual lesbian lover who let loose after dark in wild nights entwined with her sister-in-law? Wild Nights With Emily would have us believe the latter. To those who would argue it’s Dickinson’s poetry and not her sexuality that matters, we’ll point out that the title of Caffeine Theatre’s roll in the literary hay is taken directly from the Belle of Amherst herself.

emily5 The lady love Dickinson pined for when penning “Might I but moor/ To-night/in thee?”. That would be Susan Dickinson, her brother’s wife. Or so it would according to Madeleine Olnek’s curious, quirky portrait of the poet as a lesbian lover. In Wild Nights, director Meghan Beals McCarthy instills Olnek’s time-tripping tale with the playfulness this 90-minute romp demands.

But while Caffeine’s literary production is as fun as flirting, it falters in one significant aspect, and that is in the person of Emily herself. Reciting passages of longing and frustration and ecstasy from Dickinson’s body of beautiful work, Jessica Bennett’s Emily is more slouching, angsty, over-dramatic adolescent than anguished mature woman.

According to firebrand (or lightning rod, depending on who you talk to) feminist scholar Camille Paglia, Dickinson’s brutality “would stop a truck.” You’d never know to watch this version of Emily. Here, the poet is skittish, fragile, birdlike and childlike in a portrayal that doesn’t hint at the strength within a lioness of arts and letters.

Yet despite that flaw – and since Dickinson is the focus of the piece, it is not inconsequential – Wild Nights is a winning endeavor. There’s a delicious humor to be found as cartoon academics peer down their weighty spectacles into pronouncements such as “We cannot say whether Emily Dickinson was gay any more than we can conjecture that Ben Franklin would have chosen a car with airbags.”

With her ensemble bending gender portraying Dickinson’s contemporaries as well as a parade of posthumous editors, biographers, and tourists (the last tramping through various Dickinson exhibits with amusing degrees of enthusiasm), McCarthy keeps the pace spritely and the visuals vivid.

Wild Nights is a crazy quilt of times and places, bouncing between imagined scenes from Dickinson’s life (and death) and contemporary declarations about the poet’s life. Liberal sprinklings of irreverence (including one memorable wherein an earnest speaker during Mount Holyoke Parents Weekend assures the assemblage that one or two or even three “homosexual” encounters does not a lesbian undergrad make) ensure that this pseudo-biography of Dickinson never gets fusty.

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As Emily and Susan (Dana Black, hold that thought for just a moment please) rapturously discover oral sex, as Susan’s husband (Ian Novak) splutters angrily about insinuating secrets discovered folded among his wife’s “underthings,” as whist games play out and formal dances twirl about, the hidden life of Emily Dickinson unfurls as a colorful collage of eccentricity seemingly at odds with the deliberate, controlled beauty of her writing.

With the exception of Emily and Susan, McCarthy has the cast playing with the broadness of caricatures – which is wholly appropriate given the intermittent over-the-top bubbles of lunacy Olnek instills into many of her scenes. Novak, long one of the Off-Loop’s curiously unsung talents, makes great comic hay as prototypically saucy Irish maid and – more significantly – as Susie’s increasingly suspicious and snappish husband. As Emily’s biographer, Amanda Hartley is a primly outrageous, scissor-happy villainess.

Then there’s Susan, the most complex and intriguing person in this story thanks to Black’s deceptively gentle performance. She’s the quintessential still water running fathoms deep, richly contemplative one moment, smoothly calculating the next, head-over-heels-fall-down-crazy-in-love the next.

The core problem with the performance? It’s difficult to imagine this woman infatuated with the pretty but superficial snip we’re given as Dickinson.

Samantha Umstead and Alarie Hammock’s gorgeous and lavishly detailed costumes add a layer of lush visual beauty to the production and an intriguing contrast to the minimalist velvet drapes and framed poetry fragments of Stephen H. Carmody’s simple, effective set design.

The secret life of Emily Dickinson may forever remain just that. Even so, there’s intrigue in speculating what may have gone on between the lines.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Wild Nights With Emily continues through April 11 in the Berry Methodist Church (Lincoln Square Arts Center), 4754 N. Leavitt. Tickets are $15 – $20. More information is available buy going to www.caffeinetheatre.com

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PRODUCTION STAFF

Director – MEGHAN BEALS McCARTHY+
Associate Director/Dramaturg/Choreographer – JENNIFER SHOOK
Assistant Director/Stage Manager – COURTNEY MILLER
Costume Designers – ALARIE HAMMOCK & SAMANTHA UMSTEAD
Scenic Designer – STEPHEN CARMODY
Lighting Designer – CASEY DIERS*
Assistant Lighting Designer – CHASE CORMAN
Composer – JOSHUA DUMAS

 

CAST

Emily – JESSICA BENNETT
Susan/Mattie – DANA BLACK*
Lavinia/Ensemble – CAREY LEE BURTON*
Edward/Ensemble – ANNIE CALHOUN
Mabel – AMANDA HARTLEY
Austin/Ensemble – IAN NOVAK
Higginson/Ensemble – IAN RANDALL
Judge Lord/Ensemble – LAUREN VITZ

*Caffeine Theatre Artistic Associate

+Caffeine Theatre Trustee

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Category: 2010 Reviews, Caffeine Theatre, Catey Sullivan, Lincoln Square Arts Center

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