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Because I Could Not Stop

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 27, 2018

Angelica Page
Photo by Shirin Tinati

Emily Dickinson, the near-reclusive nineteenth century American poet, is the focus of Because I Could Not Stop, the Ensemble for the Romantic Century's latest and, to my mind, the most effectively balanced of its productions that are always a blend of art forms, including theatrical performance, instrumental music, and operatic singing. Opening tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the work is as ethereal and enigmatic as its subject. It's also altogether lovely, thanks to Angelica Page's assured performance as Dickinson, soprano Kristina Bachrach's crystalline singing, and beautiful renditions by a five-piece chamber group of pieces by composer Amy Beach, whose life overlapped for many years with that of the poet.

Productions by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century are often as eccentrically unconventional as the individuals whose lives they explore. Past works have focused on such notables as Vincent van Gogh, Mary Shelley, and Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky. These were often overly ambitious extravaganzas that brought together not only acting, chamber music, and singing, but also dance, art, and elaborate set, costume, and projection designs that overwhelmed and clashed. Not so here. The center of attention lies where it benefits the most, on Ms. Page's performance and on the musicians. David Bengali's projection design effectively supports the production, with images from nature that help to define the inner workings of Dickinson's mind. Dance elements, which in past productions have too often felt shoehorned in, are absent here, unless you count a few little steps that Ms. Page takes when the mood strikes.

Do be aware that this is no bio-play like William Luce's The Belle of Amherst, memorable for Julie Harris' portrayal of Dickinson. What the Ensemble for the Romantic Century is striving for is capturing the mind and soul of the poet who lived a life of near-solitude in the family home in Massachusetts and where she wrote her poems pretty much on a daily basis, carefully preserving them for an undetermined future publication after her death. The subtitle of the piece appropriately is "An Encounter With Emily Dickinson," which is a far better description than calling it a play.

Because I Could Not Stop is divided into two acts, each of which runs approximately 45 minutes, broken by a 15-minute intermission. A youthful, playful mood pervades much of Act I. Ms. Page wears a burgundy-colored dress, and there is a twinkle in her eye and a mischievousness in her tone. When we first encounter her, she is balancing a book on her head and looking directly at us. "I'm nobody!" she announces. "Who are you? Are you nobody, too?" This is, of course, the first line of one of her poems, of which we will hear at least a dozen over the course of the evening. This younger Dickinson is also the one who coquettishly proclaims: "I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don't doubt that I shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age."

That never happened, of course, and Emily Dickinson pretty much kept to herself in the home she shared with her sister and her parents (a brother lived next door). As time passes and we enter into Act II, the tone begins to shift. The music and images and colors darken, and Ms. Page appears as a quieter, more reflective, and occasionally ironic Dickinson, as in the poem that gives the production its title: "Because I could not stop for death/He kindly stopped for me."

A good deal of the evening has Dickinson silently going about her business, caught up in her correspondence, writing a verse, or sewing the covers for the mini-books she created to hold her poems that she kept stored in a trunk as her legacy. It is during these times that the excellent chamber group (Victoria Lewis and Mélanie Clapiès on violin, Chieh-Fan Yiu on viola, Ari Evan on Cello, and Max Barros on Piano) and soprano Kristina Bachrach perform. They never feel like an add-on but are rather an integral part of the presentation of Dickinson's inner thoughts and feelings. All told, the evening coalesces into an enchantingly artistic endeavor, carefully constructed by writer James Melo, and beautifully performed under Donald T. Sanders' perceptive direction. If it does not offer a complete portrait of the cryptic poet, it certainly makes for a congenial visit to her most private world.

Because I Could Not Stop
Through October 20
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral