Feeling inspired by recent amusing photographs in the mainstream press and the general warm and fuzzy, unicorn and rainbow pony nature of the holiday season (or maybe just needing distraction from the constant looping of Christmas-card jingles that assault her every time she walks into a store), sharkskin is launching a new initiative, if you will, on the Jester: thought bubble bingo.
The rules of the game are as follows: sharkskin, or Tweed, if he likes, will post a photograph from a recent article or whatnot on the site, and readers can send in suggestions, via comments, for what a Photoshop'd conceptual thought bubble should read. Fun, no? Like the back-page cartoon in the New Yorker! Or at least something to do whilst sitting at one's desk. One can only watch so many uploaded episodes of Gossip Girlafter all...
Emily Dickinson is many things for many people; she becomes anew with each reading and rereading of her poems and, as dramaturg Daniel Zippi writes in his program notes to the music-theatre work Lightning at our Feet, currently up at BAM's Harvey Theatre, she "belongs to each of us individually [...:] to the teenage girl discovering her in her bedroom, to the well-intentioned, middle-age school teacher, boring her students by reading one more of the poems she finds feeling for. She belongs to the student of poetry [...and] to the retiree who can't help but be astonished at the delicacy and subtlety of her finely placed imagery." And while, indeed, she might also belong "to the artists who, upon encountering her words, are inspired to create new works," I'm not quite sure that the Ms. Dickinson of my imagining matches the Ms. Dickinson of Ridge Theater and Michael Gordon; my Emily is just not that... sultry.
The piece, comprised of selections from Ms. Dickinson's enigmatic and quietly astounding poetry set to Gordon's edgy minimalism and augmented with films by Bill Morrison and projections by Laurie Olinder, begins with cellist Leah Coloff vigorously belting out Emily with a fierceness not generally accorded the ensconced spinster--and with a strong resemblance to Gordon's wicked good 1992 Industry for solo cellist and electronics. And more power to her, and to Gordon, for that. Coloff is wearing a slick ivory suit, and she is soon joined by three other brunettes wearing variations on the somewhat Victorian white dress Ms. Dickinson was known to sport.
Taken individually, these various Emilys create a panoramic portrait of a woman whose poetry proves that she cannot be defined by the self-imposed boundaries of her Amherst abode. Bora Yoon's play with technology--from spinning cellphones amplifying ghostly digitized song to singing through a victrola horn--is not only sonically brilliant but also, and quite appropriately given the material, makes anachronism a compositional as well as aesthetic tool. And Jennifer Charles's breathy rendering of the poems take her Emily out of the kitchen and into a dim, smoky bar. Really, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to read Ms. Dickinson again without a shot of Jack. The most affecting moment, however, was not one marked by Ms. Dickinson's words but by violinist Courtney Orlando's meandering detail of her visit to Ms. Dickinson's home. Orlando stands before a wall-size scrim depiciting the house which, late in her life, Dickinson never left, and within a room created by the smaller, movable screens. She is both within and without Emily here, within and without herself, and it is a profound moment that stands as metaphor for the rest of the piece.
However, the conceit of the four brunette Emilys, and the erotic potential of such a dreamscape, becomes, midway through, somewhat too much--undermining the very "delicacy and subtlety" of the poetry. (And, not underestimating the significance of Olinder's and costume designer Ruth Pongstaphone's contributions, or those of any other women creatively associated with the production, the fact that this brainchild sprang from the masculine loins of Gordon and Bob McGrath's Ridge Theater does beg pause. Yeah, I'm playing that feminist card and I'm not shy about it.) The piece recalls another musical rendering of strange and enigmatic texts--Elvis Costello's "Juliet Letters" with the Brodsky Quartet. But while that project transposes the affect of each letter, from the angry to the jealous to the heartbroken to the downright weird, into likeminded and frolicking song, Lightning at our Feet can't seem to get beyond a certain sexualization of the poems. At one point during Charles's crooning, I even started wondering about the potential of going all Diamanda Galas on it--which, in the performance artist's goth blend of terrifying and hot, is about as far from Ms. Dickinson as one can go. I get the idea of embodying Ms. Dickinson's words, but I'm not sure it needed to be done quite so literally.
At the end of the night I imagined my Emily less rolling in her grave than writhing in it. And, no matter how long the dress, this is not a comforting image.