Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2006
Okay, this will sound really dumb, but all I could think as I watched Looking for Elizabeth was: “This sounds scripted.” Now I am fully aware that everything I review is scripted, so what made this play specifically sound that way?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. Looking for Elizabeth is a two-character play by Bette Craig. One of the characters is the actress, author, and suffragette Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952), played by Mary Anisi, and the other is Bette Craig, played by Bette Craig. The action of the play is set at Robins’ home in Penfield, England, and takes place both in the present, and, I think, in about 1922, when Robins was about the same age as Craig is now.
I confess that I am in a real quandary as to how to describe a character who is played by the real person after whom she is named. Am I seeing Bette Craig the person, or Bette Craig the actress playing some fictional Bette Craig? Since this is a play I would assume that I am seeing the latter, but just how fictional is the Bette Craig portrayed? Craig is the playwright who created Bette Craig as well as the actress playing Bette Craig, as well as actually being Bette Craig...geez, am I confused!
And I think that’s why I felt the show sounded scripted. If this was really Bette Craig, and not just Bette Craig playing Bette Craig, why did she sound like she was reciting lines? The real Bette Craig is a published playwright who wrote, performed with, and produced for the Labor Theatre, a group active in New York City between 1973 and 1985. She has an impressive background and an obvious love of the theatre. Why did she look so uncomfortable and sound so forced?
Mary Anisi is a member of the Actors’ Studio and also boasts an impressive array of credits. She has been working with Craig on this play for the past four years. She, too, appeared to be reciting lines most of the time. She certainly underplayed the role to the hilt. The premise has Robins, whose life and work the fictional (and the real) Craig is researching, suddenly appear to Craig while she is visiting Robins’ home. This gives Craig a chance to interview Robins and ask her all the questions she has been dying to ask.
I don’t know about you, but I had never heard of Elizabeth Robins until I received a press release for this show a month ago. Consequently, there were no questions I was dying to hear her answer. Craig (the playwright) failed to make me all that interested in or involved with Robins during the course of the play. There were lots of lines where Craig (the character) would say to Robins “And in 1888 you went to Norway” or some such thing. And Anisi would just sit there and nod. Perhaps Elizabeth Robins wasn’t a very demonstrative person, although since she was a very successful actress I would readily accept a portrayal of her as much more animated than the one Anisi and director Bruce T. MacDonald have created. It’s nice to know that Robins went to Norway in 1888, but why did she go, what did she experience there, how did she feel about it? And don’t just tell me, this is the theatre, show me. Help me experience Robins’ passions, and Craig’s passion for Robins.
I can now tell you more about Elizabeth Robins, but I won’t bother. If you want to learn more, you could go see the show, or you could visit this scholarly Web site that Craig recommends in the program. Robins’ books are not that hard to track down, and there are a couple of biographies in print. I have a feeling Elizabeth Robins was a very interesting woman, but that feeling does not stem from my having seen Craig’s play.
Here is a quotation from Craig contained in some press she did to promote this production: "It was not my original intention, but I wound up as a character in my own play, and I am playing the part. I spent quite a lot of time at the Fales Library at New York University, which has most of Elizabeth Robins' papers. I was intrigued to discover that Elizabeth's mother was mentally ill, as is my own mother. Elizabeth never acknowledged this publicly, but I knew from my own experience that it had to be a significant factor in her life. This wound up forming the core of the play."
To me, this statement shows that, more than wanting to write about Elizabeth Robins, Craig wanted to write about her own mother’s mental illness. She wanted to share how this circumstance affected her life. This is completely understandable. Since writing was invented it has been a healthy and therapeutic way for people who need to express such feelings to do so. Great literature has resulted from their efforts.
The problem comes in the awkwardness of the way in which Craig has selected to express herself. I could hear what Bette Craig has to say about growing up the daughter of an insane woman much more clearly if either Bette Craig walked on to a stage and said, “Hi, I’m Bette Craig and I want to share my experience with you” or if she had written a wonderful fiction in which I could experience her story through the characters without having to worry about what was real and what was pretend. Eugene O’Neill (whose father gave Robins her first acting job) did the latter most successfully in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. We know the play is autobiographical, but by giving the characters other names and other identities O’Neill frees us to experience the essence of his experience without having to worry about the details.
Since Robins’ left no public comment on her mother’s mental illness, the scene, which comes at the end of the play not at its center, in which Craig (the character) confronts Robins with the fact and asks her about it, rings false. We do not and cannot know how Robins felt about her mother and how her mother’s illness affected her. Once again, if “Elizabeth Robins” and “Bette Craig” had been fictional characters, however closely based on truth, they could have had a wonderful and fulfilling conversation about their mothers. A play about a famous older actress/suffragette/author and her relationship with the woman writing her biography could be fascinating. It could unfold slowly, over the course of months or years, while things actually happened in the characters’ lives that gave them cause to become close and discuss such an intimate topic. No one walks in to a room and says, “Hi, my mother is nuts. How about yours?” The deep pain caused by the mental illness of a loved one is not a topic of casual conversation on a first meeting.
MacDonald is credited as the director, with “special assistance” by Chuck Portz, with whom Craig lives and with whom she worked in the Labor Theatre. Given the long-standing and close connection shared by Craig, Portz, and Anisi, MacDonald would appear to be a late-comer to this project.
MacDonald and Spencer Trova have designed a very nice set for Looking for Elizabeth which makes the best possible use of the narrow confines of Main Street Stage. Alexia Trova designed the pleasant and unobtrusive lighting. She also designed the sound, which seemed to consist of the overture to Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance played through several times before the curtain. Why? Other than Robins having been alive and working in the London theatre at the same time as Gilbert & Sullivan there is no real connection. She was famous for her work in English translations of Ibsen. Why not play the Peer Gynt Suite?? No one is credited with the costuming, and I guess that the actresses wore their own clothing because there was nothing “period” about Anisi’s outfit.
Ever since seeing Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst as a teen I have been excited about biographical plays that offer me a glimpse into the life and work of a talented person about whom I know very little. I had hoped to find that kind of excitement at Looking for Elizabeth, but it was not to be.
Looking for Elizabeth runs weekends through April 2. The show runs 95 minutes without an intermission and is suitable for all ages. For reservations or more information call Main Street Stage at 413-663-3240 or visit their Web site. The theatre is located at 57 Main Street in North Adams, a few doors east of Papyri Books.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006