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Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter With Emily Dickinson

The latest odd hybrid by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century, combining a one-woman show about the poetry and life of Emily Dickinson with a chamber music concert of 19th century composer Amy Beach,  is self-consciously tasteful and inadvertently tacky.

It’s important to point out that, since 2001, ERC has presented some 40 such hybrids, as part of their stated aim of bringing an innovative approach to chamber music concerts. In other words, one is more likely to appreciate any production by ERC by expecting a chamber music concert, rather than a full-fledged work of theater.
Angelica Page as Emily Dickinson recites some dozen of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and some of those moments, especially for those who recognize Dickinson’s poems, are a treat. But these are largely mixed in seamlessly with some of her letters and offered more as part of a narrative about her character than a dramatization of her art.
These monologues alternate with Beach’s musical compositions, played by a string quartet, pianist Max Barros (who is also ERC’s co-artistic director), and soprano Kristina Bachrach, sometimes all together. Much of this is pleasing enough. But it’s here, I’m sorry to say, that the production veers towards the tacky.
The problem is the projections during the music – drawings that are completed while we watch, facts about the life of the poet and her relatives, a spotty timeline, some doves flying… anything they can think of, it seems, goes up there on the screen, as if the creative team was anxious that the audience would get bored just listening to the music.
When the poet talks about being “the belle of Amherst,” it’s hard to avoid another stumbling block to full appreciation of “Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter with Emily Dickinson.” The ERC show must labor under the shadow of “The Belle of Amherst,” the biographical play by William Luce that became a vehicle for Julie Harris, and has continued to draw crowds with other actresses, most notably Joely Richardson in a New York production in 2014. In that play, the sole actress portrays some 15 characters. The play communicated a sense of the life of the poet, who was physically reclusive while alive, but had an extraordinarily adventurous mind (which the world discovered only posthumously, in a chest of drawers full of her poems unpublished during her lifetime.)  By contrast, “Because I Could Not Stop” seems to be trying primarily to communicate a sensibility. But is it the sensibility of Emily Dickinson or of the creative team?

Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter With Emily Dickinson
Ensemble for the Romantic Century at Signature Center
Written by James Melo and directed by Donald T. Sanders.
Scenic and costume deign by Vanessa James, lighting design by Beverly Emmons, projection design by David Bengali
Angelica Page
Victoria Lewis (violin), Mélanie Clapiès (violin), Chieh-Fan Yiu (viola), Ari Evan (cello), joined by ERC Co-Artistic Director Max Barros on piano and soprano Kristina Bachrach.
Running time: 2 hours including an intermission
Tickets: $39 to $149. (Rush: Students $20, Seniors $30)
“Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter With Emily Dickinson” is scheduled through October 21, 2018

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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