BWW Review: DEAR ELIZABETH, Gate Theatre
Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, two of America's most brilliant poets, wrote over 800 pages of letters to each other. They were best friends, platonic soulmates who rarely met but exchanged such soulful and heart-wrenching words between each other.
Sarah Ruhl's play Dear Elizabeth debuted at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2012 and is presented at Gate Theatre in a whole different shape. Directed by Ellen McDougall, the production sees two different guest performers take on the roles each night of the run; they meet their characters at the same time their audience do.
The un-rehearsedness of the evening turns it into a delightful experience for both parties: the actors are lead with a series of instructions in the script, some of which leave them in stitches, soliciting honest and unguarded reactions from them too.
They giggle their way through rains of cornflakes and impromptu picnics, and swim through more somber and sorrowful moments. Jade Anouka and Jonjo O'Neill embodied the poets on press night, starting off the show reading missives from each other.
After the initial introduction they lowered themselves into their characters but the nature of the play kept the actors in a curious limbo where the fourth wall appears between the letters and their readers. The evening is a hardcore sight-reading test, with the couple exchanging lines in a ping pong match of poetry.
McDougall hooks the audience with her direction and creates an appealing treasure hunt that is as interesting to witness as it probably is to act out. Envelopes, boxes, and parcels are opened to lead the two through Bishop and Lowell's personal and artistic lives in this atmospheric venture. It's a lively and entertaining production which heavily relies on its aura of newness and improvisation, very much like life itself does.
The weight carried by this version of Dear Elizabeth is bound to change from night to night according to the specific actors and their immediate choices but, as built by Mcdougall, it's certain to deliver an impressive and bittersweet tribute to art, love, and life.