Before getting to the crux of Edward Anthony's comi-tragedy, Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, being presented by Rogue Machine at Hollywood's Lounge Theatre, it's a good idea to start with a recent remark made by Olga Garay, who heads the City of Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs. Before coming to Los Angeles, Garay ran the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and she's no slouch at all when it comes to her global perspective and her enthusiasm for the arts and cultural environs of Los Angeles. She and her department are huge supporters of this summer's coming Radar L.A. Festival, co-curated by Mark Russell (of New York's Under the Radar Festival), Diane Rodriguez (a director and producer for Center Theatre Group) and REDCAT's executive director Mark Murphy.
All of these people gathered at REDCAT last week for an interview with the L.A. Weekly, articulating their vision of purpose for their upcoming international/local festival. That's when Garay remarked how it would be great for the festival “to explore the romance between theater and film.”
Lo and behold, in the very next production I attend, Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, there's our eponymous American poetess of despondency (Amy Davidson) having multiple conversations with cinematic characters who dance across the walls of her kitchen in her London flat, where she so famously committed suicide by sticking her head in the oven in 1963.
Among those many characters is her philandering husband, Ted Hughes — here renamed Ned Pughes (Michael Traynor).
From the blazingly colorful environs of her 1950s sitcom kitchen (set by David A. Mauer), Sylvia — here renamed Esther Greenwood, after the protagonist in Plath's novel The Bell Jar — parades in a red dress. Its frilly hem traverses the lower end of her knees, covered by an apron marbled with cherries (costumes by Jen Pollono).
Montages on the wall replay her London and Cambridge courtship with Hughes. She (and we) gaze wistfully into the black-and-white, two-dimensional realm of chandeliered English living rooms as the pair fall inevitably and inexorably for each other.
Keep in mind that Esther's husband-to-be is wooing her via video, a suave and slightly oily figure gazing down into the lurid colors of her kitchen. They're separated by a wall, not only of emotions but of media.
Talk about a romance between theater and film.
In a later scene, Esther will watch the black-and-white image of her baby daughter, here named Lulu (Sophie Pollono), crawling across the wall over the stove in which Esther has just killed herself. This wouldn't be worth mentioning were the synchronization between the celluloid Lulu and the live-action Esther not so well executed by director Matthew McCray and his video designer, Adam Flemming.
Though it has been performed in New York with similar technologies, the play demonstrates the benefits of one of Radar L.A. and REDCAT's core principles: the cross-pollination of ideas. The Wooster Group brings its brand of video-theater fusion to REDCAT every year, and the company's influence on Sylvia Plath's director, McCray, is as gratifying as it is obvious.
Amy Davidson's contrapuntally chirpy Esther Greenwood starts the play emerging from an oven named Olsen, who provides commentary (via Davidson's ventriloquism) on the poetess's posthumous recounting of her hallucinogenic memories, not to mention her impromptu cooking show. The latter features savories such as the 52 Liar Lasagna (the recipe includes “three ounces of ambition” and “two screaming children”), the Black Tar Brain Soufflé (a reference to Plath's electroshock therapy, soothingly encouraged by Esther's mother, played on video by Sharon Lawrence) and A Perfect Life, a recipe for the blistering irony of domestic misery.
Anthony's literary allusions and linguistic playfulness have abundant charms, and his account of Plath enduring the tedious rationalizations of a self-absorbed, philandering spouse has emotional power.
Hughes became a walking piñata for radical feminists after Plath's suicide. His response to their charges of his domestic abuse (of both Plath and his mistress, Assia Wevill) became a futile attempt to reason with them. He admitted to neglecting his wife but denied ever abusing her physically. There's no evidence of such abuse, nor any suggestion of such in the play.
Wevill also killed herself and the daughter she had with Hughes. To have two of your partners off themselves is either deeply rotten luck or a scream for introspection into the way one handles one's relationships, or whom one chooses as a partner.
That's a tragedy that this play, with all its technical prowess and clever banter, skirts. Nor is there even a snippet of Plath's poetry, unfortunately.
What we're given instead is a postmortem diary of a mad housewife who happened to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry decades after her suicide.
Aside from one visual image of Hughes in agony upon discovering the deceased body of his wife, the production depicts him as a narcissistic clod. This may well have been Plath's point of view, but it paradoxically contributes to the drama, and the comedy, feeling somewhat generic and facile.
The production's virtues lie in Davidson's effervescent performance and its technical accomplishments. Its larger purpose lies in wait.
WISH I HAD A SYLVIA PLATH | By Edward Anthony | Presented by Rogue Machine at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Through April 17 | (855) 585-5185, roguemachinetheatre.com