Sometimes theater will evoke a sensation of voyeurism so intimate it is like watching a nightingale sing "with her breast against a thorn." Good theater will make you laugh while witnessing this, gasp because you are laughing, pity the bird and love the music – all at once.
Caffeine Theatre's "Wild Nights with Emily" does this. It is a story of Emily Dickinson that explores a side of her life "the literature books don't generally acknowledge": her romance with lifelong friend Susan Gilbert, and the eradication of its evidence by literary executor Mabel Todd. Actresses Jessica Bennett, Dana Black and Amanda Hartley exhibit humor, pathos and dazzling chemistry in their portrayal of these ladies.
No aspect of Caffeine Theatre's production is neglected. The quick, disciplined choreography of music and movement, the occasional shadow puppetry, unexpected dimensions to the set, surprising elements in the costumes - all work together to make "Wild Nights with Emily" as astonishing as it is bawdy, as lyrical to watch as it is to hear.
New York playwright Madeleine Olnek's script is sexy, whacky, whimsical and furiously clever. It plays with time and perception, with facts and flights of fancy. It is often poetic, sometimes pragmatic ("Austen, your sideburn is in my eye."). It is a play for adults. The ensemble members handle their material with glee and precision; it is obvious they had a skillful director in Meghan Beals McCarthy and a knowledgeable dramaturge in Caffeine Theatre's artistic director Jennifer Shook.
Like its set – which at the start of the play is roped-off in sections like the Amherst museum, only to be slowly dismantled as the play progresses – "Wild Nights with Emily" demolishes scene by scene our preconceptions of an American poet, her life, her love, the manner of her death and the words she left behind.
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