Without Amy Irving casting her radiance over the project, Marta Goes’ static biodrama about Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop would collapse from its own inertia. The extraordinarily self-contained actress applies her flawless technique in this extended monologue to suggest the existential dilemma of a sensitive, cerebral and essentially passive woman who’s drawn to earthy people and exotic places. But while thesp captures Bishop’s private voice and vulnerable core, the playwright has no luck creating an exterior context for the poet’s interior life.
Play takes place mainly in Petropolis, the hillside region of Rio de Janeiro where Bishop lived for some 15 years with her lover, Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, to whom she dedicated poems written in Brazil and published in “Questions of Travel.” Affectionate references are made throughout the monologue to Lota, although she was frequently absent from their home, consumed by her work on controversial municipal projects; the architect eventually committed suicide.
But there is no sense of Lota’s presence in their house, which set designer Jeff Cowie suggests in neat still-life settings that are discreetly moved on and off the stage via revolving turntable. Neither does Rio make its presence felt in this quiet sanctuary, although Bishop often speaks of the vitality of life that drew her to the city and its active community of artists and intellectuals.
Strange to say, no strong impressions are made, either, by Seattle or Boston or any of the other places Bishop visits during the course of this memoir, despite Zachary Borovay’s well-chosen, smoothly timed visual projections. No matter how the light shifts, or how frequently that turntable moves around, nothing seems to change in Bishop’s life.
That sense of stasis does seem to be the point — and also the problem — of the play. For while Bishop keeps talking about the energy she draws from places like Rio (and Key West and Paris) and lovers like Lota (and Louise and Marjorie), she remains a very inner-directed poet and an extremely private person whose internal dramas don’t translate at all well to the stage.
Irving obviously loves Bishop: It shows in the radiant face she turns on the audience. With her enigmatic smile and hooded eyes, she conveys the extraordinarily still and quiet center of the poet who lives essentially in her own mind. And whenever she pauses in her narrative to recite lines of poetry, the moment is invariably magical. But this is no poetry reading — unfortunately.