Transformations and Other Tales
Theater Schmeater at Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave, 324-5801. Thurs-Sat at 8, Sun at 2; $12 for adults, youth under l8 are free. Through Oct 21 (no performance Oct 5-8).

LONG BEFORE I SAW Theater Schmeater's adaptation of Anne Sexton's poetry, I read Diane Wood Middlebrook's biography of the poet in 1991. I hated myself for reading it, but I couldn't stop myself. I hated myself because, like everybody else even vaguely interested in 20th-century American poetry, I knew, even before the book came out (some sharp-toothed publicist got a big promotion for that campaign!), that it made use of the privileged records of Sexton's principal psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne. I hated myself for being such a voyeur, for wanting to learn things about someone whom no one besides her chosen intimates and medi- cal professionals should have access to.

But the more I read the biography and re-read Sexton's exquisite, scary poems, the more it seemed the poet wanted it this way. Sexton was an exhibitionist--if not physically then emotionally--with one eye always halfway cocked toward the audience she wanted unabashedly, so teasingly, to watch her. After she'd become a famous poet, the former model and suburban wife told the tale of her own psychological rescue via poetry, as if it were a kind of fairy tale. The wicked queen in Sexton's story was her mother; the poisoned apple was society's pressure to lead a conventional life; the magical transformation, instead of the prince's kiss, was the shrink's suggestion to write poetry. Dr. Orne told Middlebrook that Sexton had wanted her psychiatric records made public. After Sexton's death in 1974 by suicide, her surviving family members agreed to do so.

Theater Schmeater's world premiere is adapted from Sexton's letters and her poetry, mostly Transformations, the l971 book in which Sexton revisited Grimm's fairy tales. When you walk in the house, the first thing you see is a huge photo of Sexton projected against the back of the stage. Monica Appleby, as Anne, stands frozen near this portrait in a spaghetti-strapped red dress and high heels, with her back to us. The first thing you hear is a voice saying, "Dear Linda...," reading a letter Sexton wrote to her daughter. This play, like Philip Glass' disappointing take on Franz Kafka's In the Penal Colony, is as much about the relationship between an author and the texts she produces as it is about the texts themselves. But Sexton, unlike Kafka, wanted people to read her poems biographically.

Sheila Daniels, who refers to the poet as "Anne" in her director's notes, quotes poems that describe being inhabited by a crab, a fish, a double, a dwarf. Clearly Sexton was a woman beset by demons. Unfortunately Daniels seems to take the notion of Sexton's multiple interior voices as an order to have her very agile ensemble cast keep moving too much of the time. For a few scenes, or even for a whole show, like any of the Twilight Zone marathons Theater Schmeater is known for, this cartoony, athletic style can work. But after a while I hungered for a quietly spoken line, a series of lines spoken by characters one at a time. Sexton had a great sense of humor ("Just as the Supreme Being drills/holes in our skulls to let/the Boston Symphony through"). But too often her words were shouted beyond recognition, too often eight people saying the same line (almost) simultaneously lost the line. Though the physical agility of this cast was impressive, their vocal and emotional range was narrow.

When individual actors could get away from being part of the manic chorus, there were some fine moments. Troy Miszklevitz played an earnest Prince, a naughty Parson, and a gargoyle Frog Prince with skill. Annie Lareau played a series of lurid mothers and wicked stepmothers with a particularly appropriate menace. Deanna Companion had amazing physical presence as Rumpelstiltskin.

Daniels' director's notes begin with a quotation from an anonymous fan: "I don't read poetry, but I read Anne Sexton." Sometimes you can't hear the words for the noise; sometimes that's how this flashy, manic, messed-up poet was.