Edinburgh Fringe 2018
New York, 1962. Beat poet Elise Cowen commits suicide and her family incinerates all but eighty-three of her poems. Elise uncovers the story of this extraordinary poet, intertwining her surviving work with dramatised interviews, revealing the thrilling and hedonistic culture of the Beatniks and the oppressive pressures that cut her life short. Dixie Fried Theatre’s moving piece of new writing brings to light the life and legacy of a woman shrouded in Allen Ginsberg’s shadow.
“No one is supposed to be moved by my poems but me.”
Elise Cowen will likely never be a household name and though her role in the beatnik movement of the 50’s and 60’s is subject to debate, Dixie Fried Theatre would like to shine a much needed light on her and other women whose vital role in the company of and alongside writers such as Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky, and Allen Ginsberg has been all but erased from history. It’s an important piece of new writing, current in its exploration of the misogyny so omnipresent in the Beatnik movement.
A stage surrounded at the edges by the frayed remains of a life’s work greet us as we enter the theatre, and in a dramatic opening turn, the stage is lit with a single burning match, symbolizing the destruction of all that remains of Elise. We learn that in a fit of distraught rage and anguish not only at her suicide but at her life choices, catalogued in her poetry, Elise Cowen’s parents have burned every bit they could get their hands on and all that remains is a few charred scraps and one notebook, rescued by her friend and fellow writer Leo Skir, from the fire. Her friends and family have been called to a macabre reunion, an interview process to source out the cause of her mental distress and subsequent suicide.
Elise much like its namesake, is a play struggling to find its voice, choosing to share a part of itself but not yet ready to open itself up and give itself fully, utilizing a cast of young, capable, impressive actors who also seem somewhat inaccessible to the depth of their work. The production is well executed and thoughtful in every aspect from the simple but effective set, to the impressive choreography expertly executed on the small stage. The acting style is natural but the dialogue somewhat stilted, and in an attempt to cover a lot of ground with the story, time is not given to dig deep into the characters, to bed in to the depth of destruction the beatnik lifestyle wrought on the women who were ever present and overlooked. It is a powerful choice to make the namesake of the show absent from the action, a reflection of the invisible nature of women referenced often by her friend and largest proponent Joyce Johnson, another writer of the time, whose search for answers drives much of the action, but Elise feels like a production about lost opportunities, something that this reviewer found an endless source of frustration as the potential to be something really powerful burns just on the other side of that first flame.
Entering the stage as Donald Cook, the psychology teacher and former lover of Elise, Donald makes an immediate reference to his aging knees and the need to sit down, which makes the choice of the young, virile actor playing him all the more incongruous. It is a constant through line of the production, the lack of age, not as in biology but as in experience. The Beatnik era is laden with drug abuse, alcoholism, exhaustion, and depression, referred to often by the characters. Living for a decade on a steady diet of sex, jazz, drugs, and alcohol gives one a certain kind of angry, manic desperation, an arrogant air of invincibility coupled with a pragmatic sense of impending doom bordering on madness, which is woven into the words, music, and poetry of the era, a sort of frantic passion for life and death in equal measure. This cast seems to translate this spirit of the beatniks into two categories, angry and arrogant,which left the performance feeling unfinished, the characters not quite flesh. The absent but ever present Elise, appearing as a voice over speaking the words of her remaining poetry, has no real story arc and the tragedy of her life is felt all the more in the necessity of representing her through the gaze of everyone else, particularly the men in her life. It was refreshing to see her viewed through Joyce, rather than simply through the male gaze but as the choice was made to hear her words in her voice, I only wished we as the audience could also have heard some of her emotional arc in her voice.
It is a rare thing to say but Elise feels like a one act play which should be a two act play. Much like the work of Ms. Cohen, Elise is a small bit of an incomplete image, yet the sampling we are offered is at once enough and yet leaves us wanting more, a fascinating exploration of potential snuffed out too soon by the oppression not only of others but also of one’s own mind.