Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013

Spending Time With Emily Dickinson

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Sometimes good theater is just a matter of linking up the right character with the right actor with the right audience in the right venue. Renaissance Theaterworks fits these elements together quite harmoniously in its season-opening production of The Belle of Amherst.


Jenny Wanasek Plays Emily Dickinson in a script written by William Luce that has been around for quite a few years now. Directed by Susan Fete, the production has a very warm and personal feel about it. We are invited into the home of the renowned poet by Dickinson herself. Never having met with a great deal of success during her lifetime, we meet the character of Dickinson as a casually interesting person with a great love of and an interesting relationship with the language. A towering legend who is part of the cultural heritage of the US, she's seen here as kind of a quirky shut-in who has invited the audience into her home. 


Dickinson was deeply in love with the English language. She cultivated a very unique perspective on the world as seen from a very, very cozy lifestyle that didn't involve a very large number of other people. Her world by contemporary standards was very, very small. 


So Dickinson was introverted. And indeed there was a great deal of introverted quirkiness in her personality as represented in the play. In the interest of engaging in the audience, a less experienced actress might have a tendency to want to overplay that quirkiness. Wanasek has no problem rendering a portrayal of Dickinson's personality that feels very natural without compromising a charmingly unique personality. As she isn't characterized as someone who strove for cultural status, we see a Dickinson who affected her own personal style because it amused her. There's no cloying need for approval here, so she's not going to go out of her way to try to make an impression. Of course, being Emily Dickinson, she's going to make a kind of an overwhelming presence by simply being herself. Wanasek understands this and plays the character in mercifully muted tones. 


Also, being something of an introvert the entire premise of the play kind of compromises the character's personality. She is an introvert but she has invited a large group of people into her home just to hang out. She entertains the audience by talking about her life. So we're seeing the character in her home but out of her natural element. Wanasek graciously addresses the audience with the formality of a hostess who understands the importance of being pleasant to strangers who are her guests. 


Of course, I may be over selling the whole artist aspect of the show. Yes, we're seeing an actress play a legendary American literary figure, but she's still a person. The play wouldn't be engaging it all were it not about a human being. Above all, Wanasek is playing human being and she's doing so in a very charming way. This is perhaps why there may be some vague feelings of dissatisfaction with the production. Dickinson's work is so canonized that is very difficult to imagine a casual couple of hours to hanging out with her. Even going back in time and meeting her would probably be something of a disappointment because no individual could live up to the kind of brilliance we expect out of our most cherished writers. And so with the mystery remains. And we're no closer to understanding the woman behind the words then we are simply reading her work. But thanks to Wanasek's charismatic performance, The Belle of Amherst's inability to cast much light on the unique mystery that binds a person into her own legend isn't a huge disappointment. It's simply an enjoyable night with a single actress playing a single character. And thanks to very inviting scenic design by Lisa Schlenker, actor and character have a really warm atmosphere to coexist in. It's a very comfortable show on numerous levels. 


Renaissance Theaterworks' production of The Belle of Amherst runs through November 10th at the  Broadway Theatre Center Studio Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit Renaissance Theaterworks online. A more concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express. 



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