Any high-minded literary type who stumbles into the mysterious Greg Cesear's production of The Belle of Amherst may have the impression that he has encountered a local branch of Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole. The entire endeavor glows with a poignant lunacy.
First, there is the uncanny Cesear himself. He is the founder of a one-man organization called Cesear's Forum, which, strangely, has migrated from Twinsburg (Tinker's Lane, to be precise) to Playhouse Square. Cesear, who is an energumen, seems to be the entire operation. Looking like a direct descendant of Wally Cox's Mr. Peepers, he greets you at the door and hands out programs and press kits equipped with mimeographed excerpts from the letters of Emily Dickinson. Additionally, he runs the entire lighting board, sets up the props, and would undoubtedly open the curtain (if there were one) when not personally escorting patrons to the restrooms. Incidentally, he also directed the show.
Cesear is the ultimate optimist, believing that Cleveland theatergoers, the most stubborn stay-at-homers since the founding of the cloistered Carmelites (as the late Hanna Theater demonstrated), will come downtown in the heat of summer to a claustrophobic night club with Helen Keller sight lines to see a play so rarefied and dainty that it should only be performed in church basements between servings of finger sandwiches. All this is supposed to be miraculously accomplished by telepathy, since nothing so vulgar as advertising has been involved.
The Belle of Amherst is by William Luce, the progenitor of a long line of one-person plays where a dead celeb (here a famous poetess) invites the audience into her abode and then proceeds to parade her eccentricities like a show dog. These pieces are cheap to produce and give actors a chance to show off their patented brand of radiance.
We are in the year 1883 and visiting Dickinson at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. She shares a favorite cake recipe with the audience. She explains her status as the town "character," a reclusive, poetry-writing spinster who is always clad in white. She regales us with stories of her intrusive neighbors' incursions on her voluntary solitude and goes back in time to reveal significant moments in her life, all interspersed with heady examples of her terse, piquant poetry. There is enough light erudition here to make the most illiterate booby feel like an initiate of the literati. It all leaves one with an insatiable craving for tea and scones.
Cesear's direction is, to say the least, rather bizarre. Instead of sticking his Dickinson in a cozy nook in her home, he seems to have made her a ghost in a hellish debris-strewn attic in Poe's House of Usher. She wanders like a tortured ghost, writing her poems on what seem to be pieces of decaying parchment. All the unseen characters she talks to are quite unspecified in a general haze, as if Dickinson had traded places with the unnamed governess in The Turn of the Screw.
Sheila A. Maloney as Emily demonstrates once again why she is a permanent fixture on a short list of Cleveland's finest actresses. With a mad gleam in her eye, she adds her own wondrous individuality to an evening already rife with rugged individualism. Her poetess, instead of suggesting the usual fragility of one of the world's most famous recluses, has the madcap glee of Arsenic and Old Lace's Brewster sisters. Her approach is hearty and hale; it appears as though she were about to go out and chop some wood and then found a women's suffragette chapter.
Rumor has it that all who attend this production will receive a free rubdown from the ubiquitous Cesear.
The Belle of Amherst, through July 10 at Kennedy's DownUnder, Playhouse Square Center, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.