One-act plays at Axial capture love and loneliness
By Peter D. Kramer
November 2, 2011
"Taking Off," Axial Theatre's evening of original one-acts, involves two reclusive women of about the same age, set in two different eras.
First, there's Emily Dickinson, the aspiring poet, in Ward Riley's "Feathers Sometimes Soar on the Breath of God." She's 39, unmarried, living with her sister, Lavinia, in her father's home in Amherst, Mass.
Then there's Woman in Linda Giuliano's "The Magician." She's 40, unmarried, perimenopausal, wanting nothing more than to be left alone to read her newspaper in a stalled New York City subway car somewhere near South Ferry.
Emily, who "has seen bits and pieces of the world," has the "uncontainable imagination" to conjure up that which she hasn't seen.
Woman has seen enough. She craves the peace of printed newsprint and her solitude.
Enter the men.
For Emily, it's her longtime correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a man of letters. We know from history that this meeting took place, on Aug. 16, 1870. We also learn in the author's notes that after this meeting, Dickinson stopped trying to have her poems published.
Their conversation is lost to history, but Riley reimagines it here as a far-reaching if rather formal interview, a discussion of flowers, poetry and the difference between the sexes. There are flirtations and advances from both. Higginson appraises Dickinson's poetry, finds it wanting, and — in a condescending and chauvinistic tone — chalks it up to her sex.
"Poems are my air," Dickinson protests. "They're how I breathe."
In "Magician," the man is Man, a mime wearing purple pants, red shoes and ragged tails. He wants only to bring joy, to share a moment of art.
"Even dog have joy," he says to Woman, in broken English. "Why not you?"
Seen in tandem in Axial's cozy home in St. John's church in Pleasantville, the two works — directed by Laura Credidio — shine a light on lives touched by loneliness and hurt.
Aisling Mulhern plays a Dickinson who is by turns emotional, flighty, shrill and nervous. Stephaun De Paul plays Higginson as imperious. As Woman, Kathryn Neville Browne is guarded and weary, while Francesco Campari's Man is warm, a man whose act masks deep wounds.
There's plenty to admire in Axial's efforts to make the best use of its space at St. John's. "Taking Off" puts one play at either end of the hall, with a two-tiered seating for 20 or so facing each way. At intermission, the audience shifts to look at the set that was behind them during the first act.
Whichever way you're looking, though, you'll find food for thought, about art, love, hurt and loneliness.