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A CurtainUp Review
Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath
A caveat about my calling Anthony's play comic. Given that it deals with suicide, sex and domestic abuse it's not for the weak-stomached, The oven that was famously used by Plath as her weapon of self destruction is what meets the eye even as one enters the theater — and poking out from that oven is a young woman's rear end. She's wearing a bright red dress with matching red shoes, reminiscent of Dorothy from the The Wizard of Oz. No sooner does one take in this ghastly tablea than the lights fade and we hear Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera" eerily accompanied by the sound of hissing gas fumes.
Actually Anthony's brilliant but disturbed protagonist is named Esther Greenwood (Elisabeth Gray), exhumed from the pages of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. In the course of 70 minutes she's brought to brittle life and we eavesdrop on her grimly planning and executing suicide.
The framing device for the setting — a surrealistic 1950s kitchen (the oven talks!) at 3 a.m. — is a cooking show à la Martha Stewart, with Esther, in the persona of cooking-show hostess. We thus see her "mix, blend, and whip her memories" into a perfect poem before Olson the Talking Oven can whisk her away forever. There's also tete-a-tete with celluloid characters featured in short black-and-white silent films (multi-media effects by John Farmanesh-Bocca) that are projected on an enormous quilt that doubles as a set. The solo format is also enlivened by occasional celluloid appearances of her philandering husband Ned Pews (a stand-in for Sylvia Plath's real-life husband and famous poetTed Hughes), her 2 young children, her mother Azalea, some Oxford partygoers, and one sex kitten Anya dubbed the "Babylonian Whore."
Essentially this is a strikingly and quite original spectacle of a woman confronted by an unfaithful and ambitious husband, and the specters of her failures as a poet and wife. Anthony depicts Esther, a name that means "star" in Hebrew) become, as it were, a modern-day Cleopatra. The talented Elisabeth Gray stages her suicide with grandiosity, employing a domestic ritual centered around the talking oven, which ultimately doubles as her tomb. Though this clever device doesn't always work, it's s not likely that you'll look at an oven in the same way again for a long time.
One of this play's strength is that it authentically creates the aura of the social climate of the Eisehhower era, with its rising birth rate and expectations for womn to stay home, care for their children and support their husband's career. Anthony lets us see a lot of one-upping between husband and wife here with their acute competitiveness played out in both their literary careers and family life. He wisely doesn't tack on a moral or message, but lets the drama speak for itself.
Gray is as versatile as she is talented. She not only portrays Esther but dubs the voices of the talking oven as well as the muted characters in the silent filmed sequences. Gray's Esther has a commedia dell'arte look and feel, and with her hair spiked out she resembles a kind of new-fangled Medusa. You may not like the choices that the character Esther makes in the play, but you will definitely learn more about Sylvia Plath's life and art with Gray's spot-on acting.
Ultimately, this play is an exploration of a woman who had a congenital and tempermental inability to face anything but perfection. Whether it was her poetry or her family life, she wanted nothing that was mediocre, boring, or mundane. Plath's story and this staging is surprisingly funny and entertaining — and for Plath enthusiast or scholars, a must-see.