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Whitman

About Face Theatre

By Kelly Kleiman

Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman have written an exciting score for this musical about Walt Whitman, with Whitman himself as their lyricist. What a shame the rest of the work--a fusion of dance, recitation, image, and story--presents such a one-dimensional version of the poet. And what a shame that it borrows Mary Zimmerman's technique without her genius. Eric Rosen--who conceived and directed the play in a 1998 workshop and continues in those roles for this, its world premiere--needs to rework it at least once more.

Whitman is certainly as fitted for this kind of impressionistic treatment as Leonardo da Vinci or Proust. His poetry can barely be separated from his prose, his prose from his politics, his politics from his life. Many possible stories could be fashioned from the protean Leaves of Grass, but Rosen could find only one: Walt Whitman was a poet of the body, and he was gay.

That's not all Whitman was about. It's not even the most interesting thing he was about--because most grown-ups, gay or straight, have figured out that sex isn't the only activity worth conducting or discussing. Whitman is the great poet of democracy--not just the bard but the inventor of America in the 19th century. He's the writer whose portraits of the Civil War are rivaled only by those of Mathew Brady. It's little short of shocking to see Whitman's war nursing experience interpreted primarily as an opportunity to lust after dying boys. Yes, Whitman wrote, "I have said that the soul is not more than the body." He also wrote, "I have said that the body is not more than the soul."

The poet's celebration of gay love was of course a celebration of freedom. But Rosen has missed the opportunity to connect the Whitman of the body to the Whitman of American democracy and of individual liberation in all its forms. The failure to link public defiance of sexual convention to a larger vision impoverishes Whitman and causes it to fall far short of its potential.

Adapters must make choices, but another cost of this particular choice is the complete neglect of Whitman's role as the great white poet of racial justice. Some attention to this subject, and some participation by African-American actors, is called for in a play about the author of "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" and "The runaway slave came to my house and stop't outside" and "I am the hounded slave" and "A man's body at auction." (You may think, "Oh, don't be so PC; he cast the best people regardless of color." No he didn't--at least one of them sings flat.)

Whitman says "love" a lot in his poetry, and to Rosen that means one thing: genital sexuality. The piece itself demonstrates how ahistorical an interpretation this is when it quotes a line from the elegy for Lincoln, "and thought of him I love." Does anyone really imagine the poet was sexually aroused by the dead president? Rosen presents four white men and four white women and expects us to consider them diverse because they have different patterns of mating. These players, who begin by trumpeting how "Full of Life" they are, spend the rest of the evening lying down on each other and kissing in various pairings to prove the point. It's cute the first few times--as when "We Two Boys Together Clinging" is repeated like a chant as the speakers move into an embrace--but it soon gets old.

These textual problems are exacerbated by the staging. From the opening song, in which everyone turns rigidly from side to side as if poetry or this poet required bombast, the movement never measures up to the music. It's literal ("Lie with me in the grass," and people do) and includes affected gestures masquerading as ballet ("all put hands to face and circle slowly").

For all its preoccupation with sex, Whitman is not erotic. I never want to hear anyone else charge that Mary Zimmerman is cold or lacks passion: any single sexual encounter in Metamorphoses is more erotic than all the couplings in Whitman combined.

There are images that work. Benjamin Sprunger appears onstage naked from the waist up and draped in purple cloth. One braces for the obligatory flash, but the company pulls the cloth out and swirls it around him, bathing the stage in a sea of purple in which Sprunger appears to swim and bounce. Yet Rosen couldn't leave this magnificent image alone: a few scenes later we get a second cloth spreading that adds nothing. In another lovely maneuver the cast snuggles in pairs from which the inside member escapes to wrap around someone else. These four new combinations recombine yet again, and the leavers become the left. Pieces of the text too are very powerful, including Whitman's letter to the parents of the soldier whose deathbed vigil he keeps and the increasingly desperate letters from the lover he casts off. "Section four," about Whitman's late-life affair with Peter Doyle (Geoff Rice), seems redundant, though Doyle's ultimate escape is well wrought. The funeral of Whitman's mother, with Erik Lochtefeld as the poet pounding his cane relentlessly on the floor, makes a striking tableau.

The score could do with a bit of editing: it overuses repetition, a tricky device even for Whitman himself. And "so long and I hope we shall meet again" is a weak ending, especially from composers capable of the gorgeous requiem for Whitman's mother and the strong setting of "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing." (Imma Curl's properties and Geoffrey Curley's set include fine renditions of this oak, though in general their designs aren't especially well used.)

The cast is undistinguished, literally--hard to distinguish from one another. The three bearded actors who play Whitman at various times may be intended to represent different aspects of his personality, but what those are is never made clear. For a multifaceted Whitman the facets have to be better polished, whether through performance or direction. The women too are ciphers and feel like afterthoughts in a play so insistently about love among men. But their voices are strong (particularly those of Amy Matheny and Patricia Kane) and indispensable to the score, so when Rosen returns to the well he should see about getting them some roles.

Whitman is a worthy subject, and this is a fine score with superb lyrics. Now Whitman needs an adapter who knows a little history and has some interests above his waist. It needs cast members who can really sing and really move, and a choreographer who can really move them. And it may need an uneven number of performers to keep it from reverting so relentlessly to the subject of coupling--to leave a little room for the individual. Let Whitman and his subjects celebrate and sing not just their lovers but themselves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Geoffrey M. Curley.

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