Because I Could Not Stop – An Encounter with Emily Dickinson

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830 –1886) was a prolific poet with most work discovered and published posthumously. She was born into a prominent family and given a fine education. Dickinson was a model of contradictions. The sensitive, melancholic recluse wrote hundreds of letters. Morbidly preoccupied with death perhaps because of the early passing of a beloved cousin and her mother’s chronic illness, she wrote with passion about nature and with perception about humanity=life.

“I will entertain you to the best of my abilities,” begins a somber Dickinson (Angelica Page), “but with me, when you ask for an egg, you may get a scorpion.” Amy Beach’s Theme for string quartet, from Theme and Variations op 80 is tender, beautiful. Unusually for ERC, all the music illuminating this piece, excepting one piece by Ricky Ian Gordon, is composed by Beach (1867-1944), the first American woman whose symphonic compositions were successful, taken seriously, and published. Hers is an extraordinary oeuvre. Occasional lyrics are by Robert Browning, Victor Hugo, Jessie Hague Nettleton, and Emily Dickinson.

Tonight’s exceptional string quartet, Victoria Lewis and Melanie Clapies – Violin, Chieh-Fan Yiu – Viola, Ari Evan – Cello, is comprised of four, young, nuanced musicians in such emotional sync that the raising of bows is balletic and they seem to breathe as one. Pianist/Co-Artistic Director Max Barros plays with empathy and muscle adding to the kind of prowess rarely heard outside a prestigious concert hall.

Dickinson writes, goes through correspondence, sews poems into books, paces, presses flowers, collects a blue robin’s egg…we hear recollections of a family life which was restrictive,  “…father bought me many books…,” though not without humor, “…but begged me not to read them…We had 24 hens who never did anything so vulgar as to lay a single egg.”

                                         Soprano Kristina Bachrach, Cellist Ari Evan

Because I could not stop for Death –/He kindly stopped for me – / The Carriage held but just Ourselves –/ And Immortality…Feather pen in hand (no ink pot) she composes. Anglica Page does something quietly stunning here. She looks to the ether for a line with hope, but writes it down as if accomplishing something strictly pragmatic.

“I was growing handsome very fast, but I waited in vain for one of cupid’s messengers…” The musicians become party-goers playing a game of musical chairs. One holds a bouquet. They’re charming. Standing in for Dickinson, Soprano Kristina Bachrach performs “Chanson d’Amour, Op. 21 no. 1,” a song of unrequited love. Her voice is glorious, confident, expressive.

Characterization of the heroine is not the shy, retiring woman we see in images, but rather someone clear-eyed, rife with disappointment, bitterness, anger; strength derived from communing with nature and clandestine poetry. Verse is seamlessly woven into monologue as if the poet made no distinction in her thoughts. She speaks of studying piano when young, one of several musical allusions “…now I prefer to study music with the birds.”

Victoria Lewis (violin), Mélanie Clapiès (violin), Chieh-Fan Yiu (viola), Ari Evan (cello) with Angelica Page

There are ‘cliff notes’ on her grandfather, father (both passages about and directorial manifestation of grief are telling), brother, historical events (do we need to know that AT&T was established and Coca Cola invented?!), and a poem about the dead of the The Civil War, most of which puts her in context rather than enhancing understanding. It’s too much information and, as presented, distances us. The rest of the script is dramatic, insightful, and character driven, its trajectory well realized.

“Publication is the auction of the mind,” Dickinson states at the top of Act II, “but success, even making a fool of myself, isn’t to be despised.” She published all of seven poems – anonymously. Music carries us – vigorous, sweeping, insistent. “I like to feel my life with both my hands to see if it’s there!” The force of her feeling is embodied by Bachrach. “…Like the kindness of God – shining through,” comes the stirring, Valkyrie  vocal.

“My life has stood a loaded gun…” We’re watching a complex woman, not an actress reciting. Music and text goes on after Dickinson dies. “This is my letter to the world…” She ties up a bundle of writing. “…the soul selects its own society…” Closure is deft.

Angelica Page

Caveat: Having interviewed Founder/Artistic Director Eve Wolf (read here) and been told she doesn’t interfere with other creatives except perhaps to suggest to director Donald T. Sanders that because a piece of music demands attention, action should be limited…I wonder at a surfeit of distractions that to me, seem like pandering (to a population with less culture and no attention span.)

David Bengali, whose projections were brilliant in Van Gogh’s Ear and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein almost constantly fills a screen with images. There’s artwork- unharmonious in color and substance, a combining of visuals in different mediums that look drug induced, and decade by decade text describing Dickinson’s heritage and her era in stark, contemporary white type rather than subtle, coordinating handwriting. Old photographs work as do the few poems, though again, typeface is abrasive.

Angelica Page is marvelous. My companion didn’t get hooked till midway, but Page had me from the get-go. Poems arrive with steely commitment, yet slowly as if formulating. Emotions are greatly submerged making presentation at first look stylized, though, in truth, it’s withholding. (She breaks only for a single, effective moment.) The heroine is often conversational, approaching each day first with youthful anticipation then, in quick succession, resignation and fatalism.

Like all efforts by Ensemble for the Romantic Century, this one, despite my caveats, is fascinating and unique with sufficient attributes to earn attendance.

Director Donald T. Sanders does a splendid job of creating small, credible stage business. Using his musicians to create social scenarios works to confirm Dickinson’s loneliness and outsider status. At one point, the soprano wanders blindfolded while guests avoid her grasp. In a nifty visual and metaphoric move even the cellist has his eyes covered. Dickinson’s coiled grief is well presented.

Vanessa James’ Set is highly imaginative. The company had a Lucite baby grand made in England and shipped over. (For sale after the show, for those who might be interested.) There are also Lucite chairs, stools, and a bar with etched swans. These may signify the transparency of the soul to which Dickinson refers. Torn pages of poems pattern the floor in a snail shape like the beginning of Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road (The Wizard of Oz) – a wonderful conceit.                                                                      James’ Costumes, except for a last surprising gown, are conservative and correct.

Production Photography by Shirin Tinati
Opening: Angelica Page

Ensemble for the Romantic Century presents
Because I Could Not Stop-An Encounter with Emily Dickinson
Written by James Melo
Featuring Angelica Page and Soprano Kristina Bachrach
Violin-Victoria Lewis, Violin-Melanie Clapies, Viola-Chieh-Fan Yiu, Cello-Ari Evan
Piano- Max Barros
Through October 21, 2018
Pershing Square Signature Center

About Alix Cohen (1190 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.