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Blending theater and poetry in ‘Stag’s Leap’

by Gwyn McAllister, The MV Times

A theater company from Salt Lake City will bring a unique theater experience to the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse this weekend. As devised by Salt Lake City Acting Company (SLAC) artist in residence Nancy Borgenicht, “Stag’s Leap” is a theatrical ensemble of poetry written by Pulitzer prizewinner Sharon Olds. Olds’ book of the same name, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and England’s T. S. Eliot Prize, chronicles the dissolution of her 32-year marriage in a series of narrative poems.

Edna O’Brien of the Guardian praised the writing: “Sharon Olds’ taut and beautiful poems in ‘Stag’s Leap’ explore the civil war of love and hate in the marital heart. Deserted after decades of marriage, she describes a love for her husband that refuses to die to order. They are the most unusual love poems: fortified by years, by sexual passion of valedictory intensity, and by vows she does not, at first, know how to unmake. They can be read as an ongoing narrative — a calendar of pain.”

The playhouse website calls the upcoming production “an evening blending theatrical imagery and spirited language.”

Described by Borgenicht, who also directs the performance, the piece uses about two-thirds of the book’s poems to retell the story of the marriage and breakup through the voices of five actresses of varying ages. “It’s a poetic journey of the end of a marriage, and how Sharon Olds got through it,” Borgenicht said. “It begins with the very first poem, called “When He Told Me,” and goes through the sections of the seasons and the second year after the breakup.”

The presentation of the poems is staged with the actresses taking turns doing dramatic recitations amid a few props to represent the home and the changing seasons. The piece is presented almost as a series of monologues, with the players speaking directly to the audience. “The experience is not a reading, and it’s not a play,” explained Borgenicht. “It’s a theatrical experience with the actors connecting one-on-one with the audience. [Olds] has written it as direct address to the reader.”

“Stag’s Leap” enjoyed a two-week run in Salt Lake City with the same cast that will be on-Island for the Vineyard performances. Olds, who attended the performances in Salt Lake City, will be at the playhouse, signing books post-show. The cast includes Alexandra Neil, who has appeared in a number of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and Meg Gibson, who also has extensive NYC theater and TV credits.

“The audience was part of the development process,” Borgenicht said. “We asked for feedback, and it was just tremendous. It has resonated to all genders, ages, and colors in the most fascinating ways. It’s not at all anti-male. Men have said, ‘I thought I hated poetry, but I’ve changed my mind.’”

Comments from audience members include many references to the accessibility of the poetry. “It’s narrative, following the traditional structure of a memoir,” Borgenicht said. “It’s basically a kind of poetic journey through time and seasons — how one examines oneself and heals and moves on.”

One young woman who attended a Salt Lake City performance commented, “It was stunning. I feel like I’ve run a marathon of the heart. Like I’ve experienced their lives though I only partially have.” A male audience member responded to the feedback questionnaire quite simply with three words: “Stunned. Haunted. Awed.”

When asked what sets the piece apart from a traditional poetry reading, Borgenicht said, “The actors have inhabited this language and what happens in this book. The language is poetic, but you’re hearing a person speaking directly to you in this beautiful language. It is quiet and thoughtful. There is a kind of need for that right now. It just fills you.”

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