The “Psychic Life of Savages” is lyrical, powerful, darkly humorous and not easy to sit through.
The play was written in 1995 by Amy Freed, who claims it is entirely fictitious, though the four main characters are very loosely based on the lives and works of four famous (or rather, infamous) 20th century poets — Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton.
A virtually nonexistent plot is the main weakness of the play. The gloomy parody opens in a ’50s radio station where Ted “Magus” (John Hines) first meets Robert “Stoner” (Will Marchetti) and the two engage in a frenzied poetry jam after which they embark on a close relationship. A similar closeness is bred between the women, Sylvia “Fluellen” (Fiona Gallagher) and Anne “Bittenhand” (Meg Gibson) who bond by discussing various methods of suicide in a mental asylum. A series of scenes go on to expose the neurosis of the poets, their desperation for inspiration and validation, and the interaction between the four of them. In summary: we watch four psychotics screw up their lives.
The directorial debut of Rep artistic director James Bundy DRA ’95, “Psychic Life of Savages” is by no means an accurate historical portrayal of the poets — nor is it meant to be — but knowing their real life tragedies, it may not be so far off the mark. Ted and Sylvia’s first rough sexual encounter on the classroom desk resembles Hughes and Plath’s in 1956, when he ripped off her hair band, and she bit his cheek till he bled. Knowledge of the lives of the poets undoubtedly adds a layer of meaning to the play but is unnecessary. Sex and death feature prominently, but it is the drama created over each little thing that takes centre stage. The first act will make you laugh out loud but the smile will be stopped in place as the second and third lead inexorably to the characters’ self-destruction.
The loose plotting means the play hinges entirely on character development. Freed treads a delicate line between satirizing the artists’ insecurities and foibles while respecting their heroism and dedication to the written word. They can be hard to take at times because of their self-absorbed and entirely unapologetic natures, but it is precisely these flaws that makes them interesting to watch.
Marchetti is great as a self-described “medicine-soggy” disgruntled old man with a severe case of writer’s block. He is both comically sarcastic and deeply despairing. Gibson plays the aged vixen Anne with flair, flirtatiousness and an unbelievable egotism, plenty of which can also be found in Ted’s role. Hines brings a sleazy confidence to the role, as well as a physical energy that echoes the instinctual themes in Hughes poetry. All are absolutely bonkers but Gallagher is oddly eerie in her insanity, especially in scenes involving her visions of Emily Dickinson (Phyllis Somerville). Her monotone and over-articulated voice coupled with Plath’s raw, angry poetry makes for a disturbing effect.
Set and lighting work together to seamlessly change scenes — whether it be a classroom, radio station, or the home of Sylvia and Ted. Flats slide across the stage and glass screens, hospital beds, chairs and blackboard all move into place when needed, providing a much needed sense of flow to the disjointed play.
Instead of using their poetry as a crutch for the play, Freed admirably creates original dialogue in the style of the poets. Fans of the poets will have plenty of opportunity to wallow in the language, and the poetry itself is the most enjoyable character in the play, its source of drive and feeling. The constantly spouting free verse, even as Ted and Sylvia have sex on the dining table, is quite a departure from reality and may get tedious for those who are not fans. It seems that the only place the characters cannot voice their poetry is on paper.
The play is brilliantly written. It is perfectly literary, and its characters are crazy, highly volatile and constantly frustrated under the pressure of creating. However, without a direction to grab hold of the audience, it is left floating for far too long, and words are not enough to ground them.