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A Woman of the World Played by a Magnificent Woman of the Theatre

A Woman of the World Played by a Magnificent Woman of the Theatre

Let’s be honest. I would go see Kathleen Chalfant (Tony Award nominated for Best Actress (Featured Role – Play) in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and a Outer Circle Critics, Drama Desk, Obie and Lucille Lortel award winner for her performance as Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Off-Broadway play Wit) do just about anything on stage.  Read a telephone book, recite an instruction manual, or even read poetry (I’m not the biggest fan, I most readily admit). So I didn’t really do much research beyond reading the words: “starring Award winning Kathleen Chalfant” for me to sign up to see A Woman of the World, a strongly orchestrated presentation by The Acting Company, in association with Miranda Theatre Company, currently playing in the small intimate Theater Cat 59E59 Theaters. Only when firmly seated, I discovered that this one-act one-woman show was about one of America’s most celebrated poets, Emily Dickinson and how her poetry became as well read and acknowledged as it is today. So I thought, “huh, how funny.” I literally did say those things about the phone book and poetry just before the show began, and now, in those first few moments when the structural setup was being presented, I imagined I was being tested, somehow by the theatrical gods. Did I really mean what I said concerning my affection for this great and warm-voiced actress I so admire. Or was a just telling old wives tales that wouldn’t hold up against the cool Maine wind?

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Kathleen Chalfant. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It turns out, that even with the discourse deliver set-up as explained by Chalfant’s engaging true-to-life character, Mabel Loomis Todd, a fascinating woman, best known as Emily Dickinson’s posthumous editor, this was not going to be, nor did it ever turn into anything close to a dry or dull poetry reading. It blossomed, courtesy of the Hog Island wind, into something quite different, a truth-telling conversation with A Woman of the World, unabashed and unashamed to spill the secrets of her life and her association with the recluse poet, that as it turns out, I knew nothing about.

That self-referred-to title, is one that her late 1800’s community placed on her as something of an stinging insult, positioned to inflict hurt and shame. But Chalfant’s Todd wears that jab on the progressive’s shoulders with pride and defiant grace. She’s radiate in her dishonesty and corrective embrace, giving us an entry into the life a woman born before her time. She’s famous, for being editor but also for finding ways to embarrass her uncomfortable daughter watching on from behind us, hiding behind her shame and the hard covered books that have embraced them all on those clear Maine nights. Todd’s story delivers on numerous levels, never fully invigorating the subject matter whole heartedly, but never losing our interest in her extraordinary life.

Evidence suggests that Dickinson lived much of her life in isolation. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a penchant for white clothing and was known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime.The poems published then were usually edited significantly to fit conventional poetic rules. Her poems were unique to her era. They contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.

Although Dickinson’s acquaintances were likely aware of her writing, it was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of her work became public. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though both heavily edited the content. A 1998 New York Times article revealed that of the many edits made to Dickinson’s work, the name “Susan” was often deliberately removed. At least eleven of Dickinson’s poems were dedicated to sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, though all the dedications were obliterated, presumably by Todd.

In Pulitzer Prize finalist Rebecca Gilman’s (The Glory of Living) world premiere play, as directed with a graceful air by Valentina Fratti (Cherry Lane’s Catch the Butcher), the story swings wide from the expected first impression that this was going to be about the Dickinsons. It’s really an exploration of this brave woman who was taking strides across a time period as is she lived in another dimension entirely, making up new rules of engagement as she marched to the beat of a very different provocative drummer. On a sweet but overly fussy set by Cate McCrae (59E59’s Bitter Greens) with gentle lighting by Betsy Adams (MCC’s The Wrong Man), simple costumes by Candice Donnelly (Broadway’s Hughie), and solid sound design by Margaret Montagna (New Ohio’s Raw Pasta), I learned history, not just about Emily Dickinson, but of the world that pulsated around the recluse. It’s a fascinating journey, past terrible gossips into the warm recess of the Point Breeze Inn. Lead by a brilliantly warm storyteller, easily distracted by the wind or the waves, the informal entertainment is as delightful and unique as finding a four leaf clover in the moss. From Wikipedia:

Todd doesn’t suffer fools gladly, nor does she give us an unbiased account of how she became known as the woman who edited (perhaps a bit too much, especially regarding the often deleted wife of Emily’s brother and Todd’s lover) the first volume of Emily Dickinson’s world famous poems. Through the warm passionate style of the very responsive and effervescent Chalfant, A Woman of the World intrigues, enlightens, and engages, breathing life into a lecture about a poet that I now know far more about then when I first walked in and took my seat.

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Kathleen Chalfant stars as Mabel Loomis Todd in Rebecca Gillman’s A WOMAN OF THE WORLD, directed by Valentina Fratti. Produced by The Acting Company in association with Miranda Theatre Company, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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