The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote several letters between 1858 and 1862 to someone she referred to as “The Master.” She was in her late twenties, already a recluse. (She died at 55 in 1886.) She also wrote an array of poems addressed to this character. Whether he was a real person or a godlike figure she confessed to, her letters and poems are evidence of extreme strangeness, threaded through with her fascination with illness, dying, morbidity and death. This material has inspired Tanya O’Debra’s 2013 Cincy Fringe production, Shut UP, Emily Dickinson, a very darkly comic piece that nevertheless captures the essence of this very odd woman.
O’Debra, a New York City performer who charmed Cincinnati audiences in 2012 with Radio Star in which she played numerous characters, is a pliable actress. She has made herself resemble the very plain New England poet, transplanting her to a more universal place by strewing her bedroom with accouterments of 21st-century life. Emily has a flashlight and an iPhone; on her writing table are Tums and Vaseline. She orders pizza, leaves voice messages and cowers under her bedcovers.
Also in her room is actor Gregg Bellón, with an Apple computer used to create an array of vocal sound effects. He is the sonorous voice of her demanding Master, but also a chirpy sister-in-law, an annoyed editor, cats in heat, a demonic presence who prevents Dickinson from leaving her room, a pizza delivery guy and more. But mostly he’s the irritable narrator who is beyond weary of “the most annoying poet ever born,” trapped with her in “the bedroom of her mind.”
O’Debra takes all of Dickinson’s known personality qualities and traits and pushes them to absurd extremes. She pounces on moments of death, quick to sit down and pen sappy notes of sympathy. She ponders her own demise, checking her pulse and her breath in a mirror to ascertain whether she has passed over. She has a rubbery face that can take on a serious cast when she recites Dickinson’s poetry or passages from the Master letters. But she can quickly flip the switch to a goofy parody about Cheetos and death (with orange dust) or to mug like a fickle teen bored with life. It’s a bravura performance that tips way over the line into oddness.
Audiences should be warned that the language in this show transgresses usually polite boundaries (especially for those expecting an appearance by the chaste and delicate Dickinson) — when she’s being chastised and propositioned by the Master or when her fantasies about sex are given more concrete voice. She posts a photo of herself on Facebook with her hair down, quickly finding herself subjected to a barrage of crude online posts.
Shut UP, Emily Dickinson slides back and forth between a fascinating portrait and wince-inducing asides. I found myself admiring O’Debra’s wild balancing act that captures Dickinson’s odd soul. We’ll never really know what kept Dickinson a prisoner in that upstairs room in Amherst, Massachusetts, but if you see this show you’ll have some insight into the kind of demons or gods that might have plagued her. And you’ll find yourself laughing guiltily as you learn these lessons.
PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE: 7 p.m. June 1 and 2, 8:45 p.m. June 4 and 9:15 p.m. June 7 at Know Theatre. Find more of CityBeat's ongoing 2013 Cincy Fringe Festival coverage, including performance reviews, commentary and venue details, here.