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Sylvia Plath Must Not Die

Directed by Blake Brooker

Starring Denise Clarke,

Andy Curtis, Onalea Gilbertson

and Michael Green

By One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre

At the Young Centre in Toronto

****

In 1957, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton struck up a friendship while attending a poetry workshop run by fellow confessional poet Robert Lowell in Boston.

After sessions, the two Massachusetts-born future Pulitzer Prize winners would drive to the Ritz, where they would toss back martinis, chomp down complimentary potato chips and entertain themselves by recounting their respective suicide attempts.

We get a peek at that perverse double act of death - Plath and Sexton eventually succeeded in killing themselves in 1963 and 1974, respectively - in Sylvia Plath Must Not Die, a new creation from Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit. Directed by Blake Brooker, with moments of movement choreographed by Denise Clarke, the play mines the women's poems and Plath's journals for a series of linked sketches that compare their mythologies and contrast the confessions of their dangerous minds.

Though she is not the title character, Anne Sexton, the less-idolized writer, is the star of the show. This is partly because her colloquial and theatrical poetry is more easily turned into delicious dialogue. (Indeed, she even has a poem called The Play that casts her life as a solo show.) Mostly, however, it is because of an incredibly voracious performance by Clarke. Donning a husky voice and a black-and-white dress that cleaves down to her navel and slits up to her crotch, the actor devours Sexton's poems like olives in a row of empty martini glasses, seductively sucking the pimento out of each along the way.

Drunk most of the time - she used to down a quart of vodka before readings - Sexton staggers across the stage, peering out from under heavy-lidded eyes.

She threatens to set the place on fire with her wounded words and the lit cigarettes she carelessly leaves lying around the stage. Her attitude mirrors the Miles Davis song that underscores part of the play: So What?

Portraying Plath is no doubt a harder task. Her life has been more thoroughly rummaged, by Plath herself in her novel The Bell Jar, her poems and in her posthumously published journals, but also in movies such as 2003's Sylvia starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

Onalea Gilbertson's performance is quite reserved: While Clarke's Sexton puts all her oozing juices on display, Gilbertson's Plath keeps a steely Stepford wife stance, moving across the stage step by deliberate step. She only lets her emotions shoot out in shards, as when she half spits, half coos the internal rhymes of her poem Daddy: "Every woman adores a Fascist/ The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you."

Plath can be flattened into a victim of her adulterous husband Ted Hughes - whose second wife committed suicide as well - but with Sexton at her side we get to the look at their shared struggles with betrayal through a non-gendered, non-judgmental lens. While Plath writes poems that channel her pain at being cheated on, Sexton, a self-professed "sensation junkie," offers an entirely different point of view in For My Lover, Returning To His Wife. ("You're so much like Ted," Plath tells her at one moment.) They're an interesting contrast in styles as well, the Fulbright scholar versus the college dropout-turned-housewife. Sexton's verse may be less precise and erudite than Plath's, but her sloppy "and such and such"s and household imagery connect in a direct manner. By contrast, Plath, with her penchant for Nazi concentration-camp metaphors, can seem to be trying too hard.

Then there are the husbands, who dance and fight with their poet-wives in silent choreographed moments; they're not hen-pecked, but wife-gnawed. At the end of Lady Lazarus, Plath concludes: "Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air" and, in fact, she does try to take a bite out of Hughes - played by Michael Green as tight, condescending, but sympathetic - at one point. Andy Curtis provides a useful audience stand-in as Alfred (Kayo) Sexton, the ordinary travelling salesman. "Poetry is not a sink of dirty dishes," he says.

The two men, who often retreat to the wings, open the play, wandering down to centre stage like a couple of lost hobos. "Is this going to be depressing?" Kayo asks Ted. "No," he replies.

That is not, strictly speaking, true. Plath and Sexton are both expert at dragging you down for a tour of the depths of their despair. But that there is beauty in what they write - as well as the free-form, jazzy way One Yellow Rabbit has presented their writings and especially Clarke's intoxicating performance - is ultimately life-affirming. As Sexton says at one point, "Suicide is the opposite of the poem." Every stanza written by her and Plath erased a couple of lines about their deaths.

The Rabbits are performing Sylvia Plath Must Not Die, which premiered in Calgary last January, in repertory with a revival of Doing Leonard Cohen in Toronto. In 1997, The Globe and Mail's Kate Taylor gave that show - which stages Cohen's early poetry and his novel Beautiful Losers - four stars as well.

Sylvia Plath Must Not Die continues until Dec. 13 (416-866-8666).