Annie Leibovitz Presents Pilgrimage

Annie Leibovitz’s newest batch of photos, aptly named Pilgrimage, chronicles her “exercise in renewal,” which begins at Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. A trip to Niagara Falls with her children expands into a quest to enter the worlds of people who interest her, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Sigmund Freud to Annie Oakley. The finished product interweaves portraits, landscapes, and close-ups of objects in a collage of Leibovitz’s fascinations and concerns. She will speak about the book this Wednesday at BookCourt in Brooklyn.

Wed., Dec. 14, 7 p.m., 2011



Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about the timeless American writer Emily Dickinson, but more than 800 years after her death, what’s there left to know? Lots, apparently. Along with two new books about the reclusive writer, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx is also paying tribute with Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers, which provides an extensive look into the life of Dickinson that includes a tour of her garden (a re-creation of her Victorian Homestead garden) with her famous works near the flowers that inspired them, and also an interactive perspective through photographs, watercolors, and books. This weekend, Christopher Benfey (Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others) and Jerome Charyn (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson) will give a talk moderated by Alice Quinn, executive director of Poetry Society of America. PS: We’re leaving a special note for Dickinson’s ghost to read on her nightly strolls in the garden.

June 5-13, 2010



“Wild nights, wild nights, were I with thee/Wild nights would be our luxury,” goes the Emily Dickinson poem. And we hope we’ll have the luxury of a wonderfully wild night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with this multimedia homage to Dickinson, Lightning at Our Feet. Ridge Theater director Bob McGrath and composer Michael Gordon offer a song cycle based on her poems and informed by “dispatches from a distant war.” Four female musicians—Jennifer Charles, Leah Coloff, Courtney Orlando, and Bora Yoon—channel the poet’s rhymes, as films by Bill Morrison and projections by Laurie Olinder cloak the stage. We’re sure the nun of Amherst will give a sinfully enjoyable performance.

Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Starts: Dec. 9. Continues through Dec. 13, 2008


The Blue Flower

Prospect Theater Company’s The Blue Flower has as its seed a promising idea: Haunted by World War I, a Berlin artist named Max moves to New York, where, neither clinging to German nor attempting English, he inexplicably speaks a language of his own invention. “Maxperanto,” as he calls it, sounds like a mélange of Russian, Italian, and—to judge from its explosive consonants—the African tongue of !Kung. “Bungled,” for example, translates as “boongala boongala.” Actor Marcus Neville delivers his incomprehensible lines with
utterly convincing gravity, sweetness, or fury, as the occasion demands.

If Jim and Ruth Bauer’s play about the physical and emotional journeys endured in wartime focused seriously on Maxperanto and the psychology of the man compelled to create it, The Blue Flower might, well, blossom. Instead, the production—which features live musicians and supporting film projections—ushers us back in time to Europe, where we follow Max through his mildly absorbing youth. As a medic serving in the war, he traumatically loses his best friend; Max’s shell shock marks one of the few genuinely moving elements of the European section of the story. Otherwise, this lengthy part of the play seems familiar, and the frequent songs, while zestily performed, feel pedestrian (not even Emily Dickinson would have rhymed “puke” with “news”). When we finally return to Max in America, he almost immediately croaks. Were he still with us, he might chirp what we’re thinking about our evening with him: “Boongala boongala.”


Burning Down the House

As a title, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England has a lot to live up to. Happily, Brock Clarke’s hilarious new novel makes good on its title and then some, with a loopily shambolic narrative as captivating as its feckless firebug narrator, Sam Pulsifer. Sam did 10 years in a minimum-security prison for accidentally burning down the Emily Dickinson House when he was a teenager, incinerating a couple who were in flagrante in an upstairs bedroom at the time. This makes Sam an unpopular guy around Amherst, where outraged citizens vent their displeasure by spray-painting threatening messages from Dickinson’s poetry in his parents’ driveway, or lobbing Birkenstocks through their picture window.

So it’s perhaps understandable that, years later, Sam neglects to tell his wife about his youthful crime. It’s a little less understandable, maybe, that he tells her his own parents died in a house fire, when in fact they live a few miles from the suburban wasteland where Sam has settled with his own family. You could even say there is a sort of tragic resonance when the son of the couple who went up in smoke drops by to confront Sam and demand an apology. If this novel were, say, Scott Spencer’s
Endless Love, another book featuring a hapless accidental pyromaniac, the results might well be poignant and tragic. Instead, they’re laugh-out-loud funny.

Clarke recognizes that good stories can be gruesome and absurd; his novel is both. Thomas, the man whose parents Sam inadvertently killed, takes his vengeance upon him by destroying his marriage and then moving in with Sam’s wife. But is Thomas the same person who is now systematically burning down the homes of other New England writers in a series of copycat crimes? Because just as Sam has kept his mother’s stories in his head, so his father has kept a stash of letters written to his son while Sam was in prison.

“They were all from people who lived near the homes of writers and who wanted me to burn those houses down. A man in New London, Connecticut, wanted me to burn Eugene O’Neill’s home because of what an awful drunk O’Neill was . . . A woman in Lenox, Massachusetts, wanted me to torch Edith Wharton’s house because visitors to Wharton’s house parked in front of the woman’s mailbox . . . A dairy farmer in Cooperstown, New York, wanted me to pour gasoline down the chimney of the James Fenimore Cooper House . . . ‘We’ll pay, too; I’ll sell some of our herd if I have to. I look forward to your response.’ ”

Other homes on the list: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, Mark Twain’s, Edward Bellamy’s, and a replica log cabin at Walden Pond. As these places begin to go up in flames, Sam desperately tries to prove his innocence by tracking down the people who sent him those letters years before.

The plot doesn’t burn so much as it smolders. But that doesn’t matter, because Clarke serves up so many priceless setpieces skewering the literary life— from women’s reading groups and the current vogue for memoirs, to the love affair between two professors of American literature, one of whom begins class with the statement, “Willa Cather is a cunt.” There’s also a detour to New Hampshire, where Sam attends a reading by the writer in residence at the Robert Frost Place, an author who embodies the spirit of New England, and whose work features an ax-wielding old man named Pa. Any English major who can read this chapter without shedding tears of mirth should go into accounting.

Grownup fans of Daniel Pinkwater’s sublimely comic young-adult novels should love An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, as will admirers of Jasper Fforde’s spoofy literary detective series featuring Thursday Next. It’s the perfect end-of-summer book, funny and sharp and smart enough to ease the transition from beach to boardroom. Just don’t leave it near a pack of matches.


Noise from the Front

Emily Dickinson wrote: “There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons/That oppresses, like the Heft of Cathedral Tunes…” These random tunes, however, just might inspire you to leave your den: to buy, to hear live, or to share with someone worth your time.

The Good, the Bad & the Queen
“Kingdom of Doom” from Kingdom of Doom single (Thirteen Ltd, 2007)
[CD review]

Camera Obscura
“LLoyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” from Let’s Get Out of This Country (Merge, 2006)
[Music listing for Wednesday, January 24]

Toshi Reagon
“Have You Heard” from Have You Heard (Righteous Babe, 2005)
[Music listing for Friday, January 26]

The Books
“There Is No There” from The Lemon of Pink (Tomlab, 2006)
[Music listing for Saturday, January 27]

Rosanne Cash
“Burn This Town” from Black Cadillac (Capitol, 2006)
[Music listing for Thursday, January 25]

Edison Woods
“Baby Doll” from Nest of Machines (Habit of Creation, 2006)
[Music listing for Friday, January 26]

Isaac Hayes
“Never Can Say Goodbye” from Greatest Hits (Stax, 1982)
[Music listing for Saturday, January 27]

Peter, Bjorn & John
“Start Making Sense” from Falling Out (Hidden Agenda, 2005)
[Music listing for Tuesday, January 30]

Strunz & Farah
“Bribri” from Jungle Guitars (Selva, 2006)
[Music listing for Wednesday, January 24]

Blue Oyster Cult
“Burnin’ for You” from Super Hits (Sony, 1976)
[Music listing for Friday, January 26]

Paul Weller
“Pan” from As Is Now (V2, 2006)
[Music listing for Saturday, January 27]


Birds of a Feather

“A Route of Evanescence/With a revolving Wheel—/A Resonance of Emerald—/A Rush of Cochineal,” so Emily Dickinson described the hummingbird. But the lines apply equally well to Adam Bock’s avian comedy Five Flights. In a bright, swift swirl of language and incident, the play demonstrates Bock’s talent for unflowery poetry and unsyrupy compassion. The play may concern birds, but it isn’t at all feathery.

Upon the death of their father, three adult siblings argue over how to dispose of the house-sized aviary he built. Dad believed birds housed people’s souls; his children are unconvinced. Ed (the excellent Jason Butler Harner) wants to see the aviary crumble. Absent Bobby—represented by his overwrought wife, Jane (Joanna P. Adler)—proposes selling the land as a building site. Adele (Lisa Steindler) wishes to consecrate the space as a church for her messianic friend, Olivia (Alice Ripley, out of her depths). Olivia operates, via soapbox and pamphlets, the Church of the Fifth Day—that’s the one on which God created the birds of the air. Olivia preaches the gospel of lark and loon: “Oh sweet and oh and on great wings and small and all and all across the blue, blue sky. This is where we live now, they call. This is where we live!”

Even in the case of Olivia’s high-flown rhetoric, larded with internal rhymes, Bock keeps the language simple, monosyllabic. He doesn’t economize—he’s too prolix and sensuous for that—but he ensures that the deeply felt doesn’t spill over into the florid. He trusts to the actors to find the particular cadence in the quotidian. And, under Kent Nicholson’s direction, they mostly do. When Tom (Matthew Montelongo), an affable hockey player, suffers Ed’s romantic refusal, he says, “OK, sure, sure, sure. Sure. OK. That’s too bad. I. You’re sure. That’s too bad. That’s.” In Montelongo’s mouth, the repetitions and cracked rhythms are heartrending.

It’s Tom who articulates the title and structure of the piece. The five flights relate to the five-act structure of Russian ballet or an NHL game—Tom argues they’re essentially the same. First comes narrative, then a vision, then mad scenes, then the conclusion, and last, a little dance. The play certainly has some of the ballet’s dreaminess and some of its hermetic quality. The words—so lustrous and so particular—set the characters at some remove. But Bock wants the best for them—even tightly wound Jane—and the little dance he leaves them with offers no small solace. Like Shelley’s famous skylark, Bock has indeed a blithe spirit.


Lord of the Lolitas

Long live the mystic loners. Among them, Emily Dickinson and Henry Darger—two death-obsessed American homebodies, reclusive geniuses whose work was discovered posthumously. One wrote a “letter to the world”—1775 poems—from her bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts. The other summoned a universe from his room in Chicago. Both were conjurers. The former of an inexhaustibly complex world of inner emotions. The latter of a visionary realm torn apart by inexplicable forces.

Privately, without anyone knowing it—between jobs and visits to church—from 1913, when he was 19, until 1972, the year before he died, Darger wrote and illustrated the immense, all-encompassing, and all-but-unread Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. This 15,000-page tome, or hallucination, amounts to Darger’s “potboiler to the world”—a kind of Mahabharata, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Wizard of Oz all rolled into one. This melodramatic epic is a hybrid western, nursery rhyme, military handbook, and holy-war story.

While Darger’s drawings are simply breathtaking, his narrative, as captivating as it is, is hard to track. As with Rabelais, hyperbole is the rule; logic goes out the window; fantastic things occur continuously. Suffice to say, Darger’s 59-year fever dream unfolds on a planet 1000 times larger than Earth and populated by “hundreds of thrillions” of people. Nations include Angelinia, Abbieannia, Creetoria, and Glandelinia. The good guys, or gals, are the sweet Vivian Girls; the bad guys are Glandelinians, who are predatory adults. There are little lasses with penises (Blengins), who protect the Vivians, and assorted fabulous dragons. Destruction reigns; millions die; multitudes are taken into captivity, or are subsequently freed. It’s the Civil War by way of the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Everything comes out OK in the end, but, again, don’t look to Darger for coherence. Look to him to be dazzled.

Currently, 26 of Darger’s drawings are on view, many of them encased in a weird, cross-shaped display unit that has been wedged onto the second floor of the American Folk Art Museum’s new home on West 53rd Street. So ravishing are the drawings—most of which are two-sided, some as long as nine feet—that we can almost forgive the building’s mannered brutalist exterior, which looks like a crushed Kleenex box or the suburban temple I attended as a kid. The inside is better, but cramped. Nevertheless, this is an excellent occasion to fall under Darger’s spell, consider his strengths, and reflect on some of his weaknesses.

Employing an elaborate but rudimentary working method, Darger’s drawing is at once methodical and florid; his vision, stormy and euphoric. After tracing or collaging bits of photographs, coloring books, comics, advertising, or whatnot onto pasted-together sheets of paper, Darger filled everything in with colored pencils and watercolor. The flip-flops between realism and fantasy, drawing and collage, are enticing. His color is kaleidoscopic and vibrant; his gift for panoramic composition, impressive. Many works feature more than a hundred figures, all engaged in some sort of cataclysm. Most feature disturbing, taboo encounters between naked children and clothed adults (in fact, there’s a warning posted as to the suitability of the subject matter for minors). Fascinated by weather and flowers, Darger might depict thunderclouds rolling in and turning to rain, lightning striking, or giant daffodils and petunias blooming in the foreground.

He loved nonstop action. No sooner does one battle end than another begins. Darger’s is a world of constant climax and chaos. There’s always something happening. But because of the careful and formulaic way he draws, his art is oddly static. Individual pictures blur into one another; it’s sometimes hard to remember if you’ve seen a drawing before; and no matter how exquisite or disturbing the images are, Darger’s world often seems emotionally distant. Everything is gorgeous—or horrifying—but disassociated. It’s like watching a great samurai tale. Who wins or loses is irrelevant. His approach is ceremonial rather than personal. What matters is movement and color. Formations and regalia, pageantry and meteorology are more important to Darger than people.

Still, something deeply human pulls us to his art. Something beyond the beauty of his drawing or the completeness of his world. Although he invented and inventoried hundreds of flags, dutifully recorded numbers of dead and wounded, and devoted scores of pages to individual battles, what makes Darger’s empire so juicy is how he gets it to exist in the fissure between Disney, DeMille, and de Sade—between innocence, spectacle, and lust. Scenes of naked girls tied to trees, being carried off, bound hand and foot, or gagged are common. Torture is not unusual. Darger gives us multitudes of little misses, Camp Fire girls, and tomboys; armies of Ophelias, Cordelias, Little Nells, Annabel Lees, and Lolitas—many of them nude—all engaged in an orgiastic conflagration in his spectacular, make-believe domain. The sex may be repressed, but a luxurious eroticism prevails.

Darger and Dickinson. Two stay-at-homes who traveled the universe, but who are also exact artistic opposites. She is all precision and concision—someone who didn’t invoke a world but gave ours depth. She said, “I had a terror . . . and so I sing.” Darger is encyclopedic. He conjured a gigantic yet depthless world. If he’d had a maxim it might have been, “I sang so I would not feel the terror.”


The Silence of the Iambs

If he’s lucky, Simon Worrall might be the first journalist who sells film rights to a nonfiction story in The Paris Review.

The story, “Emily Dickinson goes to Las Vegas,” arrived inconspicuously last week in the mag’s 430-page poetry issue. But unlike the verse that surrounds it, this saga has high dramatic stakes and a plot straight out of a Hitchcock movie. Its evil mastermind is Mark Hofmann, a lapsed Mormon known as “the Rembrandt of American forgers.”

Like The Maltese Falcon, this plot has a macguffin that motivates everyone to act—in this case, an Emily Dickinson poem. In the mid 1980s, Hofmann decided to forge a Dickinson for its likely market value, carefully duplicating the poet’s penmanship and paper stock. When he began showing it in Salt Lake City, experts dismissed the text as everything from “no masterpiece” to “crap.”

Yet in 1985, Hofmann’s business associate found a buyer: Todd Axelrod, a former securities trader who had moved to Vegas to become a rare-document dealer. That same year, Hofmann murdered two business partners in Utah, for which he was sentenced to life.

Ten years later, Axelrod was still showing the lousy poem. Then fate intervened. In 1995, after James Halden, the majority investor in Axelrod’s Gallery of History, died, his family trust cashed out, thereby acquiring the poem in a $2 million lot. The trust sold the poem to Sotheby’s, which sold it in 1997 to Daniel Lombardo, a curator at the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. That summer, Lombardo repeatedly dragged the document to the forensics lab of Yale’s rare-book library, where it was finally declared a fake.

Enter Simon Worrall, whose gloves-off manuscript has aroused almost as much controversy as the poem. Worrall got wind of the story in 1997, when he read a “short piece announcing that this unpublished Emily Dickinson poem had been found, and how exciting it was the Jones Library had bought it.” At the end of the summer, upon reading a “four-line mention” that the poem had been returned, he thought, “Hmm, that’s curious” and called Lombardo that day. An hour later, after hearing the rough outlines of Lombardo’s detective work, Worrall knew he had stumbled onto “the sort of story every journalist dreams of.”

First he pitched it to The New Yorker, which said no, then to Harper’s senior editor Charis Conn, who sent him a contract. Worrall spent six months “just living, sleeping, breathing, and eating this story,” trying to figure out how the poem had gotten from Vegas to Sotheby’s. The answer came in February 1998, when he flew to Vegas and found Axelrod’s office, on a four-lane drag of strip malls at the edge of town.

The British newspaper The Guardian ran a version of Worrall’s story on April 8. In it, he describes arriving at the gallery and spotting Axelrod, who looked “big, like a Sumo wrestler,” with a “cinnamon-coloured poodle” at his heels. Then two men hurried in. “I have the Sotheby’s package,” said one.

“My jaw dropped and I went weak in the knees,” Worrall recalls. He stopped the men on the way out and talked them into showing him the invoice. On it, he saw the words, “Emily Dickinson poem.” Eureka! The next day, he grilled Axelrod, who identified the dead man, James Halden, as the last link in the poem’s journey from a known forger to Sotheby’s auction block.

You couldn’t ask for a better climax. But later, editors would have problems with this scene, and with Sotheby’s complaints about Worrall’s reporting techniques. The auction house claimed he was making biased and negative statements about their experts, which Worrall denies having done. At Harper’s, Worrall says, they struggled with the text, cutting it to 4000 words. He says that despite editor Lewis Lapham’s “personal involvement,” he and the editors came to a mutual decision that the piece “couldn’t work at that length.” Conn confirms Worrall’s account.

In the summer of 1998, Worrall sold the piece to The New Yorker, where he says literary editor Bill Buford “fought for it tooth and nail.” This time, say insiders, the same questions about Worrall’s reporting techniques came up. The author concedes he had a “confrontational and hostile relationship” with Sotheby’s—but feels it was justified by their resistance. “I would never have gotten the story if I hadn’t followed it like a fox terrier and been willing to ask some difficult and uncomfortable questions.”

The story languished on 43rd Street for months, during which time Worrall passed up the chance to publish it in Granta. So he was devastated when New Yorker editor David Remnick killed it in the spring of 1999. He says Buford was unhappy, too, telling him, “I’ll just have to read it with envy somewhere else.” (Remnick and Buford declined to comment.)

The story had to go round the world before its next reception in New York. In February, it appeared in the Sydney, Australia, Morning Herald, by which time the Guardian was showing interest. James Linville, a Paris Review editor now in Berlin, recommended it to George Plimpton, who read it last winter. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is perfect for the poetry issue,’ ” says Plimpton. “But I had to find out whether we could publish it, and the first recommendation was that we shouldn’t.”

Plimpton wouldn’t take no for an answer. He retained libel lawyer James Goodale (of his father’s firm, Debevoise & Plimpton) and personally “spent a lot of time with the lawyers, going over it line by line.” As a literary man, he wasn’t so much interested in the question of how much Sotheby’s knew about the poem’s provenance as he was in Hofmann, the forger. “What fascinated me,” says Plimpton, “was the excitement of the library and then the realization that they’d been duped.” He asked for a revise, and the edit was mostly a matter of “excision.”

Plimpton knew the piece had been turned down by Harper’s and The New Yorker, “mostly because of possible legal problems.” But having finessed the situation, he’s enjoying the irony that those other mags have “much deeper pockets than The Paris Review,” which has lost money since its 1953 launch.

Now that agents Phillip Spitzer and Joel Gotler are working on a book and movie deal, Worrall is “very happy” with the piece. But looking back, he says it’s been “a rather disquieting journey. In the old days, certainly in Britain, if the facts stood, then the philosophy was publish and be damned. But now, there’s such anxiety about the possibility of a protracted lawsuit by a very powerful and wealthy company or individual, I think the fear of litigation has made substantial inroads into freedom of expression.”

A Sotheby’s spokesperson declined to comment on Worrall’s Guardian and Paris Review stories, including Worrall’s claim that Sotheby’s returned the poem to Axelrod. But he vehemently disputed the author’s conclusions. “When we sold the piece, we believed it was by Emily Dickinson,” he said. “Any theory that Sotheby’s would conspire to sell forgeries is ridiculous.”


Circus Catch

Amalia, a woman with no arms or legs, perches atop her pedestal, a coy smile playing upon her face. “You are wondering,” she purrs, “if I’ve ever had sexual intercourse.”

Playwright Carson Kreitzer gets Freakshow (HERE) off to a ripping start. She plunges the audience immediately into the intrigues of a turn-of-the-century sideshow— tales of freaks born and made, of the genuine article and gaff, of the “shame of exhibition” and the terrible need to be seen. She sketches the liaisons among Amalia; her muck-covered lover Matthew; the idiot Pinhead; Aquaboy, the human salamander; the Girl, a pert runaway; Judith, the dog-faced woman; and Mr. Flip, the operation’s unctuous barker, promoter, and paterfamilias.

Kreitzer can create complex characters, such as the lordly, dirty-talking Amalia, and write tender, clever dialogue— as when the runaway goes to kiss the begilled, beguiled Aquaboy, and he warns her, quite sadly, “I don’t turn into a prince.” Her faults lie in her plotting and structure. Kreitzer introduces conflicts, but their resolutions do not advance the drama. She gives the work a playful, episodic form, but finds no way to bring it to a satisfying end.

Happily, Pam Mackinnon’s brisk, sympathetic direction and the skills of the ensemble do much to excuse the script’s flaws and celebrate its strengths. While all the performances impress, standouts include Lisa Rothe as Judith, Meg MacCary as Amalia, and the marvelous Steven Rattazzi as Mr. Flip— the actor never shies away from Mr. Flip’s nastier qualities, yet succeeds in making him lucid, almost likable. Even in the case of this insidious showman, Kreitzer proves herself an author of exceptional compassion, everywhere revealing the humanity behind apparent monstrosity. — Alexis Soloski

Mirror, Mirror

“Let me sing to you like when we were wild, Sister,” muses Julia de Burgos (Sol Miranda), drunk and disheveled in a New York apartment in the opening scene of Julia de Burgos, Child of the Water (Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre). The Puerto Rican poet seems embroiled in a catharsis with her long-suffering sibling, but playwright Carmen Rivera has written the role of Woman (Lourdes Martín) as a mirror image of de Burgos— not exactly an evil twin, but the creative inner force of the artist. Although this doubling device could be more clearly articulated in the early stages of the play, it ultimately becomes compelling, making its poet subject more universal than her relative obscurity suggests. My favorite
of the two portrayals is Miranda’s de Burgos— she is a pleading, aching, yet fiery creature of
finely tuned verse. A Nationalist Party activist and feminist, she suffers through an affair with Juan Grullon (Ricardo Puente), an ineffectual doctor from the Dominican Republic whose bourgeois background makes it unseemly for him to marry her. De Burgos is a country girl with streaks of African and indigenous blood, but she’s bright enough to impress San Juan’s literary crowd. During an exile in Havana, she meets Chilean master Pablo Neruda (Tony Chiroldes), who counsels her to create out of love, not anger. But just as Miranda’s de Burgos and Martín’s alter ego battle over idealism and conformity, the dialogue with Neruda reveals another two-sided truth. There are excerpts from 20 of de Burgos’s poems scattered throughout the play, some infused with love, some with anger, all simmering with the sublime arrogance and delicate touch that characterize her work. De Burgos’s story is, like that of too many Puerto Rican idealists, a sad one— but the spirit that emerges from this play is a dazzling ray of light. — Ed Morales

What the Dickinson!

“From an early age I knew I wished to wear my hair in one fashion,” Deb Margolin’s Emily Dickinson informs us primly, “to look ugly and plain and spawn a cottage industry.” This early speech sets the tone for Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily (WOW Cafe), an often hilarious spoof of the life of the poet, reimagined as a lesbian. Postulating that Dickinson, not really a shy recluse, had a long affair with her brother’s wife Susan, Olnek unleashes a cavalcade of characters— past and present— to narrate and act out Dickinson’s biography. Olnek’s antic production leapfrogs from impassioned trysts between
Emily and Sue, to a present-day Mount Holyoke dean urging parents not to worry about the school’s lesbian lunch table, to a bevy of Emily’s married lady friends bursting into “No spinster maids, we”— a Gilbert and Sullivan­style ditty. In one of the funnier sequences, a women’s studies scholar lectures about gay identity while
Emily and Sue are entwined in lusty gymnastics involving as many sexual acts as can be suggested by voluminous skirts and pantaloons in the air.

Margolin’s Emily is fabulously unstrung, provoking frequent laughs with her pop-eyed edge of hysteria. She leads a sparkling troupe of eight, including Jones Miller as the cooler, sly Sue and Cynthia Kaplan as Emily’s bitchy revisionist literary executor. Olnek directs at a breathless pace, imaginatively varying styles and making the most of Munee Hayes’s over-the-top furbelowed costumes. Wild Nights does eventually meander and repeat itself, and Olnek might have satirically vandalized Dickinson’s poems a bit more. Still, you won’t soon forget her wickedly salacious spin on “I taste a liquor never brewed.” — Francine Russo