A portrait of the artist as a young hottie, the Transport Groupâs âRenascenceâ is a superheated strings-heavy biomusical devoted to the early adulthood of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. It takes its title from the perfervid 1912 lyric that thrust its winsome author to the center of the literary scene. Carmel Deanâs melodies, passionately sung, make the poems soar. But what does it mean that I came out of the show liking Millayâs poetry a lot less than when I went into it?
Performed by six actors in contemporary casual clothes and directed by Jack Cummings III and Dick Scanlan (the book writer for âThoroughly Modern Millieâ), the show opens with an 18-year-old Millay (Hannah Corneau, lively, fervent and wearing a mostly see-through blouse) already composing âRenascence,â the poem that will bring her fame, if not the prize money that she and her just-scraping-by mother and sisters hope for.
The other five actors â Jason Gotay, Danny Harris Kornfeld, Katie Thompson, Donald Webber Jr. and a lush-voiced Mikaela Bennett â assume multiple roles. The men all play women at one point or another, sometimes mincingly.
In Mr. Scanlanâs book, all of the performers are composing the poem together. âInternal rhyme,â says one. âGood,â says another. âWe still havenât said what weâre seeing,â adds a third. I could offer more, but it wouldnât help.
Millay finishes the poem fairly quickly â sheâs briefly stuck on line 107, but hey, it rains, and sheâs off again â so she spends the rest of the first act engaged in what one of her biographers called an âepistolary stripteaseâ with its editor.
In the second act, she goes to Vassar, dallies with a fellow student and with a publisher â thoroughly modern Millay â and then Mr. Scanlanâs interest in chronology, never very strong, gives up altogether. There are a few scattered impressions of Millayâs fame, followed by a coda thatâs meant to be ecstatic, but is mostly very long.
The show made me wonder why weâre still so hungry â Iâm guilty of this hunger, too â for artist biographies and what it is we want from them. If we believe in a poem, a play, a painting, a dance, we should believe that it is sturdy enough to stand on its own, without origin story or excuse. What did âRenascenceâ hope to achieve?
Iâm still not sure, but while Millay herself probably wouldnât have minded the playâs erotic focus â she was sex positive before that term was fashionable and the love poetry is blatantly autobiographical â centering the work around lightly sketched love affairs feels prurient and cheap.
As the evening wore on, I began to wish the piece had been reconceived as a concert, with no mortifying book scenes to spoil the perfect, wobble-legged pleasure of a couplet like âWe were very tired, we were very merry â/ We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.â
Then again, if Ms. Deanâs swelling, nakedly emotional and often intricately structured music is the reason to see the show, it also diminishes the poetry. Take âRenascence,â all 214 lines of it. The poem is already overwrought â âAh, awful weight! Infinity/ Pressed down upon the finite Me!â The white page cools it down and lets it breathe; Ms. Deanâs setting hots it up. This is not an improvement.
Here and elsewhere the composer has a tendency to add rising âoohs,â suggesting a numinousness that reaches beyond the lyrics. But setting those lyrics to music was the point. Ms. Millayâs candle-burning life, and poems, are already passionate enough.