EmptyOdyssey Theatre, West Los Angeles
Through March 2
Although watching a play about poet Sylvia Plath without hearing any of her poetry -- except an occasional embedded fragment -- is like watching "Amadeus" without a soundtrack, Paul Alexander's suffocating play about Plath's last few hours on Earth provides Angelica Torn with a magnificent acting vehicle. (Unfortunately, Alexander had no option because the Ted Hughes estate holds copyright control over his wife's poetry.)
Ideally, audiences should come armed with some knowledge of the Plath-Hughes family feud, like a literary equivalent of the Hatfields and the McCoys, which serves as a compelling, socially relevant literary backdrop for Torn's one-woman show, making its Los Angeles premiere after more than 350 performances in New York, London, New Zealand and Australia.
Whether or not her audiences come armed, Torn's performance is riveting from the opening bell, when she turns from her writing desk to face the audience and begins pouring out her narrative in a rapid staccato that eventually settles into a more easily understood, rhythmic rise and fall -- punctuated by profoundly pregnant pauses -- that questions whether you are watching an actor or a real person. As her delivery becomes increasingly natural, she speaks each word so beautifully that she begins to minimize the importance of Alexander's deeply rooted subjectivity.
Whether she is laying out the details of Plath's life -- as if she were reciting a Wikipedia article -- or launching herself on the kinds of gut-wrenching emotional roller coasters -- lightened by frequent touches of genuine humor and occasional irony --that were both the poet's fate and the source of much of her best work, Torn uses her self-conscious, stylized approach to create a character who might or might not be accurate and to provocatively raise without resolving the intersection of Plath's profoundly sensitive, gifted nature with conventional notions (particularly the audiences') of "normality."
The best moments are those that have the raw taste of acting exercises about them, particularly an extended sequence in a psychiatrist's office. The most jarring, least convincing notes are when Torn rails against Hughes' writing reams of inferior poetry instead of holding down a conventional job, as if only good poets should be work-exempt.
The spacious Odyssey stage is used to good effect with a minimal amount of furniture and lighting that not only provides imaginative, shadowy contexts for the various episodes from her life but even matches the appropriate emotional temperatures.
Unfortunately, Torn's frumpy appearance -- whether it is meant as a subtle indication of Plath's state of mind or a reflection of the unattractive carelessness with which she dressed in reality --proves a distraction, particularly during her incongruous and protracted carrying on about the bovine appearance of her successor in Hughes' bed.
Ultimately, staunch Plath fans will find Torn a stirring advocate who reopens the wounds and restates the anti-Ted Hughes arguments with eloquent purpose. Witnessing the actress take on the range of demons, real and imagined, that eventually hounded the poet beyond her ability to cope, gives Alexander's version of Plath an eerily tangible and disturbing presence.
Presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Playwright-director: Paul Alexander
Producers: Ron Sos, Beth Hogan
Set/lighting designer: William St. John
Stage manager: Jessica Simpson
Sylvia Plath: Angelica Torn