Review: ‘Renascence’ Introduces a Thoroughly Modern Millay

Review: ‘Renascence’ Introduces a Thoroughly Modern Millay

A portrait of the artist as a young hottie, the Transport Group’s “Renascence” 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 Dean’s melodies, passionately sung, make the poems soar. But what does it mean that I came out of the show liking Millay’s 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 “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), the show opens with an 18-year-old Millay (Hannah Corneau, lively, fervent and wearing a mostly see-through blouse) already composing “Renascence,” 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 — Jason Gotay, Danny Harris Kornfeld, Katie Thompson, Donald Webber Jr. and a lush-voiced Mikaela Bennett — assume multiple roles. The men all play women at one point or another, sometimes mincingly.

In Mr. Scanlan’s book, all of the performers are composing the poem together. “Internal rhyme,” says one. “Good,” says another. “We still haven’t said what we’re seeing,” adds a third. I could offer more, but it wouldn’t help.

Millay finishes the poem fairly quickly — she’s briefly stuck on line 107, but hey, it rains, and she’s off again — so she spends the rest of the first act engaged in what one of her biographers called an “epistolary striptease” with its editor.

In the second act, she goes to Vassar, dallies with a fellow student and with a publisher — thoroughly modern Millay — and then Mr. Scanlan’s interest in chronology, never very strong, gives up altogether. There are a few scattered impressions of Millay’s fame, followed by a coda that’s meant to be ecstatic, but is mostly very long.

The show made me wonder why we’re still so hungry — I’m guilty of this hunger, too — 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 “Renascence” hope to achieve?

I’m still not sure, but while Millay herself probably wouldn’t have minded the play’s erotic focus — she was sex positive before that term was fashionable and the love poetry is blatantly autobiographical — 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 “We were very tired, we were very merry —/ We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.”

Then again, if Ms. Dean’s swelling, nakedly emotional and often intricately structured music is the reason to see the show, it also diminishes the poetry. Take “Renascence,” all 214 lines of it. The poem is already overwrought — “Ah, awful weight! Infinity/ Pressed down upon the finite Me!” The white page cools it down and lets it breathe; Ms. Dean’s setting hots it up. This is not an improvement.

Here and elsewhere the composer has a tendency to add rising “oohs,” suggesting a numinousness that reaches beyond the lyrics. But setting those lyrics to music was the point. Ms. Millay’s candle-burning life, and poems, are already passionate enough.

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