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Theatre in Review: Renascence (Transport Group/Abrons Arts Center)

Jason Gotay, Hannah Corneau. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The Transport Group is currently presenting Renascence, a musical about Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I can't imagine why. The show certainly doesn't provide any clues.

Not that Millay isn't an interesting subject for investigation; indeed, there is no comparable cultural figure today. A best-selling poet -- in the 1930s, she was earning the equivalent of a six-figure salary of today -- she was a literary rock star, known for her free-living ways, and possessed of a diverse resume that included hit plays and the libretto for an opera that garnered seventeen curtain calls on its opening night at the Met. And when she wrote "My candle burns at both ends" she wasn't kidding: A sexual swashbuckler with both men and women, she was, according to one biographer, at one point sleeping with five people simultaneously, one of them the eminent critic Edmund Wilson. (Anyone who could outdo Wilson in the bedroom was, potentially, a gold medalist in any sexual Olympics.)

Millay, the poet, is largely forgotten now, her classic rhyming verse long ago deemed old-fashioned and too ladylike in the wake of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Elizabeth Bishop -- tough modernist dames wielding words like switchblades. There was a flurry of interest in Millay early in this century, with the publication of two biographies, one of which was, reportedly, the subject of a Hollywood bidding war between Holly Hunter, Gillian Anderson, and Heather Graham. (Cate Blanchett, who certainly has the temperament, and Gwyneth Paltrow, who has her looks, were also said to be interested in playing her.) In any case, Millay has long been absent from most English department syllabi and it's hard to find anyone who takes her too seriously.

Renascence occasionally indulges in special pleading for its heroine, for example, insisting that she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, when, in fact, she was the third, after Sara Teasdale and Margaret Widdemer. Most of the time, however, it fails -- badly -- to make a case for dramatizing the life of the poet, who should by all rights (see above) make a rip-roaring musical-theatre heroine. Whatever you say about Millay and her notably untidy personal life, she must have been quite the siren. Renascence makes her into an absolute pill.

This is largely the fault of Dick Scanlan's book, which employs a story theatre methodology that never shies away from cutesiness, and, as often as not, relies on telling rather than showing. Vincent, waxing poetic, says, "My mind is a gallery in which each and every painting is a scene from my life." Her sister, Norma, watching in awe, says, "God, she's good" -- a trope that is repeated at least twice. The show has barely begun and one feels the pressure of the playwright's thumb on the scale. If the young lady's way with words is so brilliant, surely we can recognize it for ourselves. Other distractions include an audience-participation sequence in which we are encouraged to heckle one of Millay's literary rivals and a promiscuity production number that requires Millay to crawl around like a Las Vegas exotic dancer; it features a pair of Vassar girls played, for no good reason, by male actors, who are encouraged to mince around like the cast of a college drag show. This sort of fooling around quickly comes to feel self-congratulatory and strangely trivializing, as if we're getting the dumbed-down version of the Millay saga.

Oddly, nearly the entire first act is devoted to Millay's attempts at winning a literary prize. She submits a work -- the poem used for the musical's title -- to an anthology titled The Lyric Year; it comes with a competition for which winner gets $1,000. As she really did, she shamelessly vamps the book's married editor (Ferdinand Earle, unnamed in the show), trying to get the money awarded to her. Her efforts come to naught, although the impact of Renascence upon publication puts her on the road to fame. (A rangy, almost Transcendentalist work by a twenty-year-old female, it quickly becomes an object of fascination.) The endless harping on winning the contest grates: Even with her mother, Cora, and sisters weighing in, and with the occasional visit by her absent father -- who was sent packing by Cora early on, thanks to his improvident ways -- the action-starved first half moves sluggishly at best.

The act ends on a note of anguish, as Millay needs the prize money to rescue her starving family. This concern evaporates, however, with the appearance of Caroline B. Dow, a moneyed grande dame who floats Millay's tuition at Vassar. Initially grateful, she quickly drops the old lady to work her way through the Vassar student body. Among her prize catches is Elaine Ralli, an heiress who hates poetry but who -- for a few minutes, anyway -- seems to capture Millay's heart. (Ralli, who spends lavishly on her new love, went on to become an eminent physician.) Soon the poet has landed in Greenwich Village, where she adds many more notches to her belt, makes money hand over fist, and becomes terribly, terribly disillusioned by it all. By the time we see her unhappily autographing copies of her latest volume, she looks thoroughly hollowed out.

This portrait of Millay as a climber and user of others might have been allayed by the score, which could have probed more deeply into her amazing, almost frantic, productivity and singular vision. But the songs, which set the poems to music by Carmel Dean, are grand gusts of lyricism that habitually lose the sense of the words. Some of Millay's most enjoyable poems have an intimacy and intellectual independence that are captivating, as if she were speaking directly to one, pursuing a line of thought in real time; an opening sequence, in which the members of the ensemble talk through the opening lines of Renascence, is remarkably seductive. Encased in conventionally sweeping melodies of the sort found in Hollywood blockbusters, however, the rhythm of the lines is thoroughly lost. (The cast members' spotty diction when singing only compounds the problem.)

The direction, by Scanlan and Jack Cummings III, is equally tongue-tied when it comes to suggesting the nature of Millay's allure. The personable cast members, dressed by Ásta Bennie Hostetter in contemporary clothing, take on multiple roles, with varying success. Hannah Corneau gives Millay a sullen, grasping quality that begs the question of her popularity with both sexes; not for a second does she seem to be author of a far-reaching poem like Renascence. Much more successful are Danny Harris Kornfield, whose Caroline B. Dow touchingly holds on to her dignity despite being dropped by Millay; Mikaela Bennett, striking some visible sparks of passion as Elaine Ralli; and Donald Webber, Jr., as Millay's father, especially in a sad encounter, after years of separation, when he has become a needy, forgetful old man.

The production design is fairly spartan, with a nearly bare thrust stage designed by Brett J. Banakis. (My lips are sealed about the climactic scenic coup de théâtre, except to note that it is both effortful and unnecessary.) Jen Schriever's lighting manages some evocative footlight looks, along with rather attractive backlighting during the final sequence. Kai Harada's sound design manages a fine blend of voices and instruments -- not an easy task when the two are far apart in an auditorium with less-than-optimum acoustics.

Renascence doesn't cover Millay's later years, including her unconventional marriage to the Danish importer Eugen Jan Boissevain, her tumultuous affair with the much-younger poet George Dillon, and her descent into a hell of alcoholism and morphine abuse. Preferring to fetishize her as an endlessly free spirit, the show concludes with a lengthy musical sequence that sets the poem Renascence to music. As staged by the choreographer, Scott Rink, it takes a work that has been presented all night long as the basis of a profoundly redemptive vision and reduces it to a production number, and not a very intelligible one at that. The question nags at me: What do Scanlan and company see in Edna St. Vincent Millay? -- David Barbour

(26 October 2018)

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