Review: It's Poetry Against the Pyre in "Drinks with Dead Poets"
Drinks with Dead Poets
Adapted by Glyn Maxwell from his novel of the same name
Directed by Attilio Rigotti
Presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd St., Manhattan, NYC
February 2-11, 2024
|Elise Stone as Ashling, John Lenartz as Max, Antonio Edwards Suárez as Zach. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
While the play’s suggestions regarding the slippery slope of current efforts at book banning are obvious, the more notable commentary lies elsewhere. The Rags’ active participation in practices with which they clearly disagree reveals the dangers of compromise going too far, the problem with sacrificing what’s truly important in the name of “just getting along.” In our current polarized and seemingly uncivil society, compromise and civility might seem admirable, but the example of the Rags suggests the dangers of sacrificing true democratic values in the process.
|John Lenartz as Max. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Although the book burning occurs off stage, it occasions the interactions with the titular dead poets that comprise most of the play’s action. As the smell of the barbeque fueled by the book burning wafts into the bar, Ashling and Zack alternate falling into trances and channeling the spirits of a range of great American poets from Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson to Native American poet John Rollin Ridge and colonial poet Anne Bradstreet. These performances are undoubtedly the most successful aspect of the production as Stone and Suárez perform across gender and color lines, culminating in a brilliant joint presentation of Walt Whitman and his multitudes.
|Elise Stone as Ashling. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
The play’s reference to the Brontë sisters at beginning and end initially does not seem to fit with its American setting and focus on American poets but ultimately is more tied to the hope it locates in children than their status as literary greats. The play’s conclusion, in which the traveler Max plays with the toy soldiers he found in his pocket looking for money to settle up his bar tab, sees the traveler channeling the sisters’ imaginary land of Gondal and the toy soldiers they had been gifted that inhabited it. In the end, no amendment can fully destroy the generative power of the imagination, and there is always hope in the next generation.