It’s an all white bedroom. ALL white, every stick of furniture, bedding, everything on the writing desk. There’s a white Apple laptop on the mantle (tip off) below an empty picture frame. Oddly Simon and Garfunkel is playing. A man in a white nightshirt appears (Gregg Bellón). “I’m going to be really real with you…” He prefaces the play as Emily (author/actor Tanya O’Debra) makes cracks from under bed covers. “Illness has grounded her…” Rough sex rears its head (tip off number two). Clearly, this is not a period depiction of the poet.
Standing behind the frame with a microphone the man narrates, creates sound effects (her sister Lavinia’s cats), plays a pizza delivery man (ignored at the door), and importantly, the “Master,” commanding Emily to please him in sexual positions and acts she resists. As far as we know, Dickinson was a virgin. The playwright finds this state as untenable as Master does.
Out of bed in her all white layers, Emily reads correspondence, makes phone calls (?!)- one to sister-in-law Susan who has little tolerance, takes a selfie, recites (well), jumps up and down on the bed, argues with her Master – “Be a good girl, bend over and lift your skirt…Please let me teach my little bird what the bees know…” He calls her spoiled and self-absorbed – quite true here. She takes it as a compliment. There’s some teasing on the poet’s part. She takes off a couple of layers.
Words and phrases are several times repeated ad infinitum like the work of Gertrude Stein. The poet is mean and unlikeable. She walks into the audience with annoyance and disparagement exuding bitterness, then sings a few bars of “All By Myself.”
What’s true: Emily Dickinson lived more and more exclusively in white clothing. After a brief time at primary school, then Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, she returned home and isolated herself, first to the grounds, eventually to her bedroom. Vast correspondence was sustained. Many of Dickinson’s poems related to the “deepening menace” of death, immortality, and spirituality. She was diagnosed as suffering from “nervous prostration” though agoraphobia and epilepsy have also been conjectured.
After her passing, Lavinia edited the cache of hidden poems she found, often removing the name “Susan.” Many scholars consider the relationship between Emily and her sister-in-law romantic. “Susie…be my own again…I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you… hot and feverish…” (From a letter.) Pervading sex, madness, and hysteria are of the playwright’s making. With all the correspondence available, one might wish for more specific character illumination. Contemporary touches feel gimmicky.
Gregg Bellón is fine in all his roles though a more benevolent than dominant Master. Tanya O’Debra is best when acting unmoored or reciting poetry. A Maine accent is good, if inconsistently present. Her tantrum screaming could pierce an eardrum.
“Period” music composed by Andrew Moreyellow is apt.
“A friend gave me a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry many years ago, and I had a sense that she would have been a deeply annoying person…” (Tanya O’Debra)
Your cup of tea?
Photos by Molly Broxton
Shut up, Emily Dickinson by Tanya O’Debra
Directed by Sara Wolkowitz
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
Through August 13, 2022