A welcome addition to Dickinson lore
New play portrays the poet as a young woman, with beauty, humor and complexity
An insidious thing happens to some students of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Somewhere early in their acquaintance with the verse, students are told that a number of the poems, with their consistent meter, can be sung to the tunes of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" or "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."
From that point, whatever the brilliance of the poem, the sing-song sing-along to a country-western classic or a '70s Coke commercial can prove overwhelming. Choose your ear-worm tune and sing: "Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me..."
But here come Sharmon J. Hilfinger and Joan McMillen to the rescue. In "Tell It Slant," having its premiere at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View, they bring music and new life to Dickinson's poetry with dynamic complexity, humor, stunning harmonies and eloquent beauty.
Described as "a play with music about Emily Dickinson," the show is blissfully free of academic condescension and steers well clear of hagiography. The combination of biographical drama and Dickinson's poems massaged into songs (with music by McMillen) could, in the wrong hands, be unbearably twee.
But these are exactly the right hands. Hilfinger, a founding member of the Pear Avenue Theatre Playwrights' Guild, takes a bold approach to Dickinson's life story, and McMillen, a vivacious presence on stage at the piano, has not overcomplicated the songs nor dumbed them down. The overall tone and sound of the show are respectful and honest but very much alive.
Director Rachel Anderson juggles the elements expertly as she eschews a fancy set or flashy trappings and allows her crack eight-member ensemble to set the scene, assume multiple characters and occasionally serve as furniture during the nearly 2-and-a-half-hour show.
Paz Pardo is the emcee of sorts. Called the Demiurge, Pardo directs the action from time to time; she assigns actors roles, and in doing so helps clarify the action for us. She tells us where we are — mostly in Amherst, Mass., in the mid-1800s — and what we're going to see.
She also introduces a length of white rope that will be used in a multitude of ways throughout the show. The rope can be a wall, a prayer shawl, a valentine, cigarettes, sewing thread, a crown and robe and, perhaps most tellingly, a noose.
The rope also becomes a piece of visual poetry during a key moment in Act 1. The energetic Emily (Caitlyn Louchard) has two fierce loves in her life. The first is her brother, Austin (Bjorn Geske), who shares Emily's voracious love of reading. The second is Susan Gilbert (Siobhan Doherty), an orphaned school friend who is welcomed into the fold of the quirky Dickinson family.
What Emily doesn't know is that Austin and Susan are engaged to be married, and when Susan goes off to teach in Baltimore, both Emily and Austin shower her with love letters (and chestnuts). Those letters, not to mention their affection, is depicted by the rope, which slowly entwines Susan, rendering her immobile.
The first act focuses primarily on Emily's life and family, leading from childhood to young adulthood and heartbreak — poignantly portrayed by the marvelous Louchard — which leads her inward and pushes her into the tormented but creative world of her poetry. The play swirls with poets — Emerson and Tennyson among them — as well as ideas and intellect but is always accessible. Even audience members who aren't necessarily into poetry can feel welcome here.
The second act attempts to illuminate the source of Emily's poetic brilliance and posits that her writing was what allowed her to endure, for a while, the emotional difficulties that shrouded her adult life.
Because of the less formal structure of the play, and through Anderson's playful direction, the biographical part of the show, which could become mired in melodrama, never veers too far from the poetry. During a fleeting glimpse of Austin and Susan's wedding, for instance, we hear Emily intoning, "I felt a funeral in my brain." The contrast is sharp and pulls us into Emily's torment and her need to be solitary.
Hilfinger and McMillen take their cue from Dickinson herself: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant...The Truth must dazzle gradually, Or every man be blind." So much has been written and depicted about Dickinson that you have to wonder, why do we need more? But to hear the poetry amid McMillen's gorgeous melodies is to find a new appreciation for Dickinson's weird and wonderful words.
From the first number, "Into My Garden," depicting childhood, to Austin and Emily's duet on "What of That?" the songs underscore and augment the drama without simply attempting to explain or justify. The vocal arrangements find beautiful voice in the ensemble, which also includes Juliet Strong, Bear Capron, Michael Sommers and Nick Allen. To further augment the rich musical palette, Doherty plays the flute and Allen slides the big trombone.
"Tell It Slant" brims with emotion but is never sentimental. At one point the Demiurge sprinkles glitter over Austin and Susan, but that's about as corny as it gets here. The wry wit and dark moods of Dickinson herself help steer the show away from those dangerous theatrical waters.
No, this potent combination of poetry, biography and music is a welcome addition to the realm of Dickinson lore and provides an evening of consistently surprising theatrical bliss.
What: "Tell It Slant," a new drama with music by Sharmon J. Hilfinger and Joan McMillen
Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View
When: Through Sept. 27, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Info: Go to thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.