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Paulanne Simmons

Elizabeth Bishop 101

Amy Irving stars in the one-woman play "A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop" by Marta Góes at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.

"A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop"
Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander
Primary Stages
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th St.
Opened March 21, 2006
Tues. 7 p.m., Wed. & Sat 8 p.m., matinees Sat. at 2 p.m. & Sun at 3 p.m., Wed. matinee performances April 12 & 19 2 p.m.
$45 (212) 279-4200
Closes April 30, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 25, 2006

"A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop" covers twenty years in the life of the poet, the greater part of which was spent in Brazil in the company of her lover and companion, architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Playwright Marta Goes vividly paints the exotic landscape of the Brazilian coast where life seems a bit like "a cross between Mexico City and Miami." In the end, however, Brazil proves to be not so safe for Bishop, who returns to the more prosaic cities of the United States.

Richard Jay-Alexander who directed the Vassar College/NY Stage & Film production, helms this Primary Stages premiere. Bishop is again portrayed by the OBIE Award-winning Amy Irving. Irving deftly changes clothing in the wings, walks from scene to scene on a rotating stage and never misses a step.

Goes illuminates Bishop's orphaned childhood, her insecurity as a poet and her alcoholism. We see Bishop winning the Pulitzer Prize and witness her tempestuous relationship with Soares. Bishop's tumultuous life is set against the tumultuous events taking place in Brazil and the United States during the 50s and 60s.

The scope of A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop is immense, and this is both the strength and the weakness of Goes's work.

The wide breadth of Bishop's monologue is exactly what hinders its depth. Just when one aspect of Bishop's life becomes really interesting, the table turns and Bishop is on the move again. This makes the play a bit like the endless slide show of a friend's vacation--too little and too much at the same time.

More troubling, A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop sometimes reveals its academic origins. It can be so didactic one is tempted to take notes.

Irving has clearly mastered her material. But she is never given the chance to satisfactorily delve into Bishops character. And even this accomplished actress occasionally stumbles over Goes's dense language.

The most effective moments in the play are when the stage dims and Irving, bathed in a soft circle of light, recites Bishop['s beautiful poetry, which describe Bishop's inner turmoil far more eloquently than anything Goes has written.

Goes's play is a worthwhile endeavor if only because it will introduce this troubled writer of tender yet piercing verses to a larger public. A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth also proves that often poets are best experienced through their own words.

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