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On Stage: a play on words from Lennon's tomes

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In June of 1964, a debate in the British Parliament on the subject of automation and its effect on the British workingman prompted one Charles Curran, a Conservative member of Parliament from Uxbridge, to recite a short poem from a recently published book of stories and verse. The book's author, a 24-year-old man from Liverpool, "has a feeling for words and story telling," Curran said, but "is in a state of pathetic near-literacy. He seems to have picked up bits of Tennyson, Browning, and Robert Louis Stevenson while listening with one ear to the football results on the wireless." Bemoaning an educational system that had clearly failed a promising young author, Curran summed up, "The volume from which I have quoted strikes me as singularly pathetic and touching."

The book was In His Own Write, and the author was John Lennon. What had so troubled Curran was Lennon's insistent use of nonsense language--a furiously energetic collage of puns, phonetically spelled dialect, scattershot literary and show-business allusions, and out-and-out gobbledygook--to reflect what he saw as the absurd experience of growing up in England in the 1940s and '50s. In Lennon's world, people would "wash" the "teddiviscious" and listen to the "rabio"; Prime Minister "Harassed Wilsod" won the "General Erection"; a dying man dictated his "last will and testicle"; teachers advised their speech students that "deep breeding and in haley is very impotent for broadcastle and outlaying ariels"; and "Shamrock Womlbs" exclaimed, "Ellifitzgerrald my dear whopper" as he set off to track down "Jack the Nipple."

Critics more enthralled with Lennon than Charles Curran and his ilk compared In His Own Write and the 1965 follow-up volume, A Spaniard in the Works, to the writings of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and even James Joyce. Lennon himself affected a modest tone: "I just put things down and stuff them in my pockets until I have enough," he told Cosmopolitan interviewer Gloria Steinem in 1964. "I mean to read Joyce but I never have. I got a laugh from all those intellectuals saying I was like him. I've read some Thurber stories though. And Alice in Wonderland."

One admirer of Lennon's work was Adrienne Kennedy, an American playwright whose drama Funnyhouse of a Negro won a Village Voice Obie award in 1964. Kennedy set out to bring Lennon's stories and poems to the stage; her adaptation, The Lennon Play: In His Own Write, entered the repertory of the National Theatre of Great Britain in 1968. Kennedy's collaborator on the piece was director-writer Victor Spinetti, best known as a comic actor who had appeared with the Beatles in Help!, A Hard Day's Night, and Magical Mystery Tour. Kennedy and Spinetti gave theatrical shape to Lennon's short pieces by focusing a series of vignettes on a central figure, "Me," whose active fantasy life compensates for the inattention of his TV-addicted family and the absurdities launched at him from various authority figures--teachers, vicars, TV and radio talk-show hosts, and so on.

The result is a darkly whimsical one-act, which opens in its Chicago premiere this week, staged by the Temporary Theater Company. Frank Farrell, artistic director of the company and director of the production, sees in these early writings a clear indication of the artistic direction Lennon was to take in the later 1960s. "Lennon said that when he reached the age of psychedelics, he realized he'd always viewed the world that way anyway," says Farrell. "And psychedelia to me has always had a very childlike feel--like a kaleidoscope or a collage, both of which this play resembles."

Though The Lennon Play has clear parallels to Lennon's own life--notably the familial conflict that Lennon's later interviews and biographies revealed--Farrell emphasizes that the play is not really about John Lennon. "The 'Me' character is an everyman. Victor Spinetti says that the play is 'about the growing up of any of us: the things that helped us to be more aware.' Part of our work on the text has involved researching Lennon's life--but the digging we're doing has to be our secret for the play to work."

"What appealed to me was the poetry," Farrell adds. "The wordplay, the very imaginative and stimulated point of view Lennon brings to his world. And it seemed perfect for our company because of our emphasis on language and literary adaptations."

The Lennon Play is intended as a turning point for the Temporary, which in five years of operation has produced some 20 one- or two-night performances in a variety of spaces but has never offered a play for an extended run. The company was launched in late 1984 with When I Have Fears, a tribute to the late cabaret singer Martha Schlamme at the Organic Lab Theater. "It started out as a one-man show by me," says Farrell, who studied with Schlamme in New York and sought to emulate the way she told stories through music and poetry. But it ended up as a "gallimaufry"--what Farrell describes as a "performance-art variety showcase" of numerous performers, who all created routines on the theme of fear.

Subsequent events were organized around such themes as foolishness, dancing, the movies, the telephone, and the works of Tennessee Williams. "We told people who wanted to participate that the theme was not the reason for the evening--it was the excuse," Farrell notes. Since the performers weren't paid, members of Actors' Equity were prohibited by union rules from doing anything that was memorized. "They could do songs, improvs, readings; I was the MC," says Farrell, himself an Equity member. "There were plenty of non-union actors to do scenes."

Performing at such spaces as the Organic, Second City E.T.C., and Sheffield's bar, the Temporary operated hand to mouth and on a show-by-show basis. Farrell says, "We made enough money to get us where we are now--which is that we don't want to do one-nighters anymore! We want to do a full run and have real rehearsals. We want to do fuller work, a cohesive evening. And we want our own home."

Thus The Lennon Play inaugurates the Temporary's first permanent home: the Okefenokee Playhouse in Rogers Park. The theater's name reflects Farrell's intent to mount his own stage adaptation of Impollutable Pogo, the 1970 collection of cartoons by Walt Kelly; but that project recently hit a snag when Farrell was negotiating for rights with the Kelly estate. Instead, Temporary will follow up The Lennon Play in the fall with an evening of Dorothy Parker stories, which should fulfill a primary preoccupation of theirs: "taking work that isn't normally theatrical and theatricalizing it."

The Lennon Play opens Thursday, August 10, at 8 PM at the Okefenokee Playhouse, 1257 W. Loyola, and runs through September 3. Tickets are $8 (with senior and student discounts); performances are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. For information or reservations, call 465-1312.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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