Chicago Actors Ensemble

My first impressions of Sylvia Plath came from a murder mystery novel I read as an adolescent. The four main suspects were coeds who worshiped Sylvia Plath, and they were all pale-skinned, dressed only in black, and at least pretended to be suicidal. One was anorexic. My interest in reading Sylvia Plath was not sparked. When I was finally forced to read her work, I was astonished by Plath’s insight and wit.

It’s been a long time since I thought about that novel. But I think Eric Ronis, creator and director of Chicago Actors Ensemble’s Lady Lazarus and Other Women: An Evening With Sylvia Plath, must have read it and taken it to heart. The nine characters in the play would be right at home with those deranged coeds. In their hands the poems take on an unfocused, lunatic edge, which makes it difficult to wrest any meaning from them.

This is a bit of a problem, since this evening with Sylvia Plath consists entirely of a dramatic presentation of eleven of her poems. The majority are taken from her last volume of poetry, published after her suicide in 1963, and the director has chosen some of Plath’s most famous and powerful works, including “The Colossus,” “Daddy,” and of course “Lady Lazarus.” But Ronis, apparently afraid that the words alone would not be enough to keep an audience in their seats, has forced action onto the poems, some of it random and some contrived, thus distorting their meaning.

In “Pursuit,” for instance, the second poem in the play, actress Kristen Gasser runs all over the stage in fear of the imaginary panther chasing her. Making the panther a real and present danger reduces the panther as a metaphor for other things, perhaps the thoughts pursuing her. Near the end of the poem, when Gasser finally stands still, another actress stands menacingly behind her, and in the poem’s final moment, the other actress grabs Gasser by the shoulders. All these strange activities–because they’re so literal–merely distract us from what the poem might be about.

The main problem with the play, however, is an almost total lack of humor. Though Plath is commonly known for being manic-depressive and suicidal, her poetry is full of wit. In “Lady Lazarus,” Plath wrote that “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” In a journal entry made when she was 17, Plath noted, “Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light.”

But most of the characters in the CAE production are strange, bitter ladies. The tone is clear from the very start, when a lone actress enters lit only by the candle she is holding. Dressed in a nightgown, she glides past the audience, staring at us with the glazed, vaguely hostile look of an inmate in a mental ward. It’s not a good opening for seeing things in a “wry, humorous light.”

Another example is Joan Rundell’s rendition of “Daddy,” a piece that Plath considered, along with “Lady Lazarus,” to be one of her light poems. Rundell turns the odd imagery into a nightmare of fascist hatred, goose-stepping around the stage and spitting out the words “Jew” and “gypsy” as if they were insults. This is odd because the poem equates her father with fascists and herself with their victims, the Jews and gypsies that Rundell seems to despise.

Two of the actresses do overcome the problems of the production, and they provide some amazing moments. Hilary Mac Austin is beautifully focused in “Tulips,” a piece about a hospital patient who becomes frightened by the flowers left in her room. Mac Austin goes from a droll, intelligent woman, who finds confidence and a strange freedom in her illness, to a terrified, vulnerable victim who realizes the pain she has yet to go through: “The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea, / And comes from a country far away as health.”

Donna Pieroni was phenomenal in her performance of “Lady Lazarus,” the play’s closing piece. Dressed in a black, satiny dress and long black gloves, and in dark, dramatic makeup, Pieroni gently taunts and teases the audience, completely in control.

A few of the other women have some good moments. Pamela Webster has a lovely simplicity, but she plays only one unchanging persona throughout. Mary Derbyshire provides some welcome exuberance, but that too becomes slightly monotonous.

This sameness of spirit, not at all in keeping with the highs and lows of Plath’s poetry, is countered by the haunting pre- and postshow music. Ranging from the folksy, whimsical Kate Bush to rowdy Irish-sounding music and creepy whisperings, the music genuinely filled out the emotional spectrum in a way the play failed to do.