by Nat Frothingham
Just as summer turns to fall — suddenly, upcoming, is an almost remarkable convergence of one-person shows.
Two (one-person) shows will be performed at QuarryWorks Theater in Adamant and a one-woman show will be performed at Lost Nation Theater, in Montpelier from September 7 to 17.
At QuarryWorks Theater in Adamant, actor Elizabeth Wilcox will dramatize the life of justly renowned, but enigmatic, 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson in a play by William Luce entitled “The Belle of Amherst.” Also at QuarryWorks (in an alternating schedule with “The Belle of Amherst”) actor G. Richard Ames will perform his own one-man show “Out of My Head.” And at the Montpelier City Hall Arts Center, actor Janis Stevens will perform a one-woman show about stage personality and acting great Katharine Hepburn in a play entitled “Kate: The Unexamined Life” by Rick Foster.
“The Belle of Amherst”
When she was 22 — and today she’s close to 55 — Elizabeth Wilcox, then a UVM Theater major — found her acting talent celebrated by Burlington Free Press styles editor Maggie Maurice on the front page of the popular Free Press “Living Section.” Her play then, as now was “The Belle of Amherst,” a dramatic portrayal of Emily Dickinson.
In 1984 when she had her first theatrical encounter with Emily Dickinson, she was performing a short excerpt from the play.
But in the QuarryWorks production Wilcox confronts the entire script and in a phone conversation with The Bridge she spoke candidly about preparing for her role.
“This has been a very lonely process,” she said. “It’s just you. It’s arduous. The excitement of the newness of it”
Wilcox has been working with Ernestine Genini whom she describes as “just a wonderful woman who can help you memorize lines. I wanted to do it incrementally. I wanted to get to the point where I wasn’t worrying where the next line was. I divvied it out thought by thought. It went from one thought to another.
For Wilcox, an experienced actor, “The lines are not the issue. You don’t want those lines to be rote. I have to speak them. The conceit is I’m talking to an audience. She’s the town recluse. She invites the audience to come into her life.”
As Wilcox dug deeply into the script, she discovered that playwright William Luce has taken a lot of liberties with Emily’s life. The play is an admixture, borrowed from Emily Dickinson, borrowed from her sister — it’s less of an authentic portrait and more of a performing piece not true to — but inspired by — the poet who wrote,
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
“Out of My Head”
Rick Ames performing Rick Ames — that’s what’s on offer in a two-act, one-man show consisting of short scenes that are described by Ames as — comic, serious, light, dark, sentimental, silly and fun.
Ames developed the show last year and performed in the small, face-to-face setting of a 60-seat performance space created from the remnants of an old bakery building in Burlington’s North End.
“My show,” he writes, “is 30 pieces that I wrote over 30 years, beginning when I was 16.
Two winters ago, Ames said, “When I was in between theater projects and getting antsy, I decided to finally produce some of my own work.”
Each act presents 15 pieces, a total of 19 songs and 11 monologues including monologues with multiple-character scenes acted out with puppets. Ames considers himself lucky to be surrounded by “magnificent musical talent” including and these are his words, “mostly piano, some guitar, ukulele and a little saxophone — from people who are both musical friends and family.
Ames generously acknowledges the personal, theatrical, literary, musical people whose love, example, fun, comedy, pathos, near-brilliance have both launched his acting and writing career and sustained it — the likes of such dissimilar and amazing people as Ogden Nash, Tom Lehrer, William Shakespeare, Ames’ mother and father, Dr. Seuss, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and Ruth Wallis.
Ames loves what language can do. At 47, “I continue to protest for peace,” he said.
His problem wasn’t learning the lines because, as he said, “It helps that I wrote the material.” Speaking about himself in the third person, he said, with mock seriousness, “The guy who wrote this show is weird and verbose.”
“Kate: The Unexamined Life”
During a break in rehearsals at Lost Nation Theater, Janis Stevens talked by phone with The Bridge about how it happened that a play was written by Rick Foster about Katharine Hepburn with Stevens in the world premiere title role.
Stevens and playwright Rick Foster were and are friends.
It was Foster who wrote “Vivien” with Janis Stevens in mind — a play based on the life of English actor Vivien Leigh (and movie buffs will remember Leigh for her performance as Scarlett O’Hara opposite Clark Gable in “Gone With the Wind.)”
Based on her performance as Vivian in Rick Foster’s one-woman play, Stevens in 2006 won a nomination for a Drama Desk Award.
According to Stevens and this was after her success in “Vivien” — Foster got a phone call from an older actor who essentially said to him, “You’ve got to do a play about Katharine Hepburn for Janis.”
It started with that phone call. Then both Foster and Stevens watched the Katharine Hepburn interviews with late night TV talk show host Dick Cavett. And they were fascinated.
Said Stevens, “Rick wrote the play. We read it. We felt it had a lot of potential. We offered it to the Sacramento (California) Theatre Company in 2014 and Stevens played Katharine Hepburn in the world premiere from Nov. 5 to Dec. 21, 2014.
“It’s not just about Katharine Hepburn,” Stevens said. “She’s the central character. She tells some of the stories people want to hear.” After all, Hepburn was a formidably independent, charmingly defiant woman who refused to be bullied and pushed around.
But as we catch up with Hepburn in Foster’s play, she’s 92 years old and in a wheelchair and as Stevens relates, “She’s grappling with the loss of energy, grappling with her old age.”
Stevens said that her own mother died at 102 in 2014. She died right before we premiered the play. She didn’t get to see it.”
But despite Hepburn’s struggles with old age, Stevens said about the play, “It ends in a positive way — in the best positive way. The reassessment she comes to — it’s a positive.”
At QuarryWorks Theater
“The Belle of Amherst” will be presented on Sept. 8, 9 and 14 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sept. 16 and 17 at 2 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
“Out of My Head…” written and performed by G. Richard Ames will be presented on Sept. 7, 15, 16 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sept. 9, 10 at 2 p.m. Reservations can be made two weeks in advance of the date a particular show opens. Call 229-6978.
At Lost Nation Theater
“Kate: The Unexamined Life,” a play by Rick Foster with Janis Stevens in the role of Katharine Hepburn will be presented Thursdays through Sundays, Sept. 7–17 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on Sept. 9, 10 and Sept. 16, 17 at 2 p.m. at Montpelier City Hall Arts Center. For more information, go to lostnationtheater.org or phone 229-0492.