Play addresses complexity of four poetsÌ lives

It may seem that an outwardly non-existent plot is something that will impair the quality of a play. Common sense might suggest that a clearly defined storyline is a necessity to the success and understanding of any type of performance.

But that is not always the case. Sometimes, a less evident plot may actually contribute to the theme of the performance ñ the disorganization of the charactersí lives is as apparent as the lack of a centralized plot.

This way of life is portrayed in The Psychic Life of Savages, a play by Amy Freed, a Pulitzer Prizeñ nominated playwright. The play originally premiered in 1995, but it is just now arriving in the hands of USF students. The College of Visual and Performing Arts School of Theatre has prepared a rendition of the play presented by director Christopher Steele, which will be performed this week.

ìI read the play a year ago in a collection of plays published by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., where they printed all the plays that premiered on their stage. I fell in love with it,î Steele said. ìContemporary drama is sometimes boring and follows a predictable model, but this play is just so expansive in its use of language and cutting humor ñ itís just extremely good writing,î he said.

The play is loosely based on the lives and works of four poets: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. Though the characters keep the first names of their prototypes, their last names are different than those of the poets.

ìI know Amy (Freed) thoroughly researched the poets when she wrote the play,î Steele said. ìSince poetry is my interest, I was fairly familiar with the works of the poets.î

Each of the USF actors playing the roles of the four poets prepared for their roles by reading biographies and work of the artists, Steele said.

Victoria Tranthem, a senior majoring in theater performance who plays Anne, said she prepared herself for her character thoroughly.

ìI read books on Anne Sexton, like the one written by her daughter, but I also read the play very carefully to see what others say of my character,î she said.

But Steele said that while research is important, accurate historical portrayals of the authors are not the most crucial aspect.

ìItís not as important to make this play a museum piece. Itís not biographical; it has a much wider scope than that,î he said. ìBut the play is based very loosely, and factually it (the play) is not possible. The spirit of the play is more essential.î

Though the storyline follows the lives of the characters, it is hard to distinguish a thread connecting the plot. The themes, however, are universal to the play. Throughout the entire play, the poets cite poetry, whether it is their characterís or their fellow poetsí, uniting the scenes around the unstable nature of the poets.

ìThe poetry in the play wasnít really easier or harder to learn, but more expressive,î Tranthem said. ìNormal people donít speak like that, but Anne did because she had a poetís mind. Itís a lot more fun.î

Adam Belvo, a junior majoring in theater performance, plays the part of Ted and said he agrees, with Tranthem.

ìThe poetry adds another element of drama (to the play),î he said. ì(Freed) really spent a good deal of time trying to mimic how these poets would speak,î he said.

The name of the play also relates to the themes of the piece. The title was taken from Sigmund Freudís Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between The Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, a book about totemic societies and their relationship to the neuroticism of the Victorian era.

ìThe play has quite a few moments that are dignified, that have passion, love and zeal and then neurotic savagery,î Belvo said. ìIt shows through the civilized and the savage in real life.î

Steele said the play resembles man in different ways.

ìThe play confronts the ways in which instincts in primitive man are mirrored in the artistic man. The imagination is powerfully present,î he said.

According to the actors and the director, the fact that anyone can draw parallels between themselves and the characters of the play gives it substance.

ìI think anyone can identify with Anne,î Tranthem said. ìItís the way she puts on a facade when sheís in public, but when sheís with family, sheís her own person. Itís similar to how I am, and I think itís how all people are in social settings.î

Belvo agreed.

ìTed is so passionate about his work,î he said. ìI donít know if Iím as passionate, but Iím very energetic about what I do. Of course, Tedís sexual urges are over the top, but like anyone he puts up a front of being untouchable, when in fact anything can catch him off balance.î

As the director, Steele said he sees parallels between himself and the entire play.

ìThe play is not about one poet,î he said. ìI mainly identify with the issues raised by the play and the problems (the poets) face in the pursuit of an artistic life,î he said.

Though the play is what a collaboration of the four authors would be, Steele said, the action centers mostly on Sylvia.

ìThe piece is mostly built around Plath, but personally I like Ted a bit more, and I donít think he comes off in a very positive light,î Steele said.

Christine Goertz, a senior majoring in theater performance, plays Sylvia and thinks the merit of the play is in its complexity and themes.

ìI think the play basically says that genius can be empowering, but it can also hinder you and cause your downfall,î she said. ìPlath was mentally unbalanced, but she was still a genius, and her passion ended up destroying her life.î

In addition to genius, it is the haste upon which the characters act that ruins their lives. ìThese poets are so brilliant and intelligent, yet they act on impulse. They donít think before they do, and in retrospect, they know they should have,î Goertz said.

The play will be performed in Theatre 1, Wednesday – Friday at 8 p.m.

Contact Olga Robakat