Richard Jay-Alexander (Bette’s “Kiss My Brass” Director) Brings “A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop” To The Stage

Richard Jay_Amy Irving.jpg

Sunday, June 13, 2004
Irving opens strong lineup
First Mainstage play of season features poet’s story of Brazilian romance
By Nicole Edwards
Poughkeepsie Journal

Photo: Mr. Alexander and star, Amy Irving (Will Faller)

Academy Award-nominated actor Amy Irving and director Richard Jay-Alexander have spent a few days at Vassar College, enjoying the fact that they’re in Poughkeepsie to study and work.

Lounging on a chair and couch 30 minutes before a morning rehearsal in Vassar’s Mary Anna Fox Martel Theater in the Center for Drama and Film, the two spoke eagerly about presenting ”A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop.”

As Brazil was a safe harbor for the poet Bishop, performing in the play is a haven for Irving, keeping her connected to a place she’s always felt comfortable — the theater.

”I was brought up in the theater,” said Irving, whose director/producer father Jules Irving and mother Priscilla Pointer had their daughter on stage in ”Rumpelstiltskin” at 9 months. ”I can never stay away from the theater for too long.”

Irving has spent much of her career in front of the camera, starring in films such as “Crossing Delancy,” “Traffic” and “Yentl,” for which she received her Oscar nomination.

Taking on the demeanor and characteristics of Bishop brings Irving to another place, thousands of miles away from the pace of New York City, where she lives with her two sons and husband, Bruno Baretto.

Irving will share the charms of Brazil’s environment, people, language and traditions as she portrays Bishop, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Vassar graduate of 1934. Vassar hosts the American premiere of Marta Goes’ play June 23 through July 1. It’s the Mainstage opener for Vassar and New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater season.

The summer festival, celebrating its 20th anniversary, begins June 18 and ends Aug. 1.

Personal connection

Performed only in Sao Paulo and Rio in 2001, ”A Safe Harbor” tells the story of Bishop’s journey to South America in 1951, when a visit with friends resulted in a near 20-year stay after she met Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares.

”It’s so personal to me,” said Irving, who received copies of the script two years ago. ”My experience overlaps with Elizabeth Bishop’s so much. She just got the culture the same way that I have.” She said she was immediately taken with the South American nation during her first visit 15 years ago with her Brazilian husband.

Irving met with Goes in Brazil to discuss adapting the script in English and pressed to have it presented at Vassar when she heard about Powerhouse and the Bishop archives there.

Jay-Alexander, who also directed Bette Midler’s ”Kiss My Brass” tour, had worked with Irving when he directed a few scenes for 2000 movie ”Bossa Nova.” This, too, was a love story set in Rio de Jeniro, co-starring Irving and directed by her filmmaker husband. When Jay-Alexander read the play, he immediately knew it was for Irving.

”I could hear her cadence,” he said. ”I could actually hear her voice.”

Careful not to reveal the ending of ”A Safe Harbor,” Irving and Jay-Alexander did say there are some surprises. Perhaps a display of Irving’s vocal skills? While the two were serving details of the play back and forth faster than Venus and Serena Williams, Jay-Alexander noted that Irving was a great singer. Irving did supply the singing voice for Jessica Rabbit in the 1988 movie ”Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

Irving talked at length about her fascination with Bishop and about reintroducing the play ”exactly where it should be,” referring to Bishop’s alma mater. Vassar has an extensive archive of Bishop poetry, letters, artwork and photographs. The Vassar library will exhibit these items in honor of Bishop (it’s the 25th anniversary of her death) on June 27. There will also be a reception that day for Irving, Jay-Alexander and Goes.

”I pretty much fell in love with Brazil right away,” Irving recalled about her first trip there in 1989. ”The warmth of the people, the sensuality, the music, the air. Everything is about sensory enhancement.”

She doesn’t know if it was because she was in love when she arrived, she said, but Irving completely embraced the Brazilian culture. She speaks fluent Portuguese and she and Baretto now have a home in Buzios, which is about two and half hours from Rio.

Of course, she had to adjust to a lifestyle much different from the one she was used to.

”They don’t wear a lot of clothes,” Irving said. ”It’s very freeing. Everybody is so free with their bodies. Their sexuality is so on their sleeve. There’s nothing self-conscious about it.”

”My life is completely changed,” Irving said, but not only because she can spend summers visiting the Amazon or experiencing Carnivale.

”Living in another culture and looking from the outside. … It’s like your whole world opens up. I’m so grateful to my husband. It’s like the greatest gift a love can give and that’s what Lota gave to Bishop.”

Jay-Alexander said his only concern about ”A Safe Harbor” is just getting the details right.

”Everyday it’s like leaps and bounds and Amy, she just keeps putting layers on every day and it keeps getting richer and richer,” he said.

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