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.
Timely in our current era of book banning, the dystopian world presented in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s Drinks with Dead Poets, an adaptation of Glyn Maxwell’s novel of the same name, is both entirely different from and eerily similar to our own. Set in the pub on the Hudson River in Nyack, NY, where it was originally performed, the play shows us traveler Max’s (John Lenartz) encounters with barkeepers Ashling (Elise Stone) and Zack (Antonio Edwards Suárez), who represent two classes of people, the Rags and the Flags respectively, in this parallel universe where books are blacked out and buried. The Rags are fettered women who are not just complicit in the new world order that the Flags have instituted, but actively participate in the destruction of books and the perpetuation of the lie that the ropes that bind them are beautiful colored ribbons.

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.
Additionally, the world of the Rags and Flags is one in which the government works with a speed wholly at odds with the current political climate of stalemate and regular threats of government shutdown. While a speedy and quick-working government might be a fantasy, its horrifying results in the world of the play serve as a reminder of the necessity of checks and balances. Amendments are passed at a dizzying speed, including the one at the heart of the plot of the play involving the burning at the upcoming Liberty Fair of 12 books found in a Mrs. Manitou’s cottage in the woods.

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 world of the play is bleak and thus in some ways functions as an elegy for a world that has passed away, punctuated in key places by an almost eerie rendering of the well-known Shaker song “Tis the Gift to Be Simple.” The simplicity of this world is not a gift. However, it also proffers hope in the form of the children who, we are told, begin to recite poetry as Mrs. Manitou’s books are burned. Banning books of course made them more desirable, and unbeknownst to the Flags, the children have somehow gained access to poetry.

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.

-Stephanie Pietros

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