at the Garage
Given Jerzy Kosinski's Jewish parentage and E.E. Cummings's well-documented anti-Semitism, it's hard to believe the two would have gotten along. Yet Roadworks Productions has put the works of these two enigmatic 20th-century writers on the same stage in Pen Men.
Pen Men is the result of a project in a Northwestern University performance-studies class that required students to develop creative one-person pieces based on the lives and works of historical figures. The aim was to eliminate the dryness of the typical biographical one-man show by using creative performance techniques. Patrick McNulty as E. E. Cummings and Jon Mozes as Jerzy Kosinski are both capable performers, but what makes Pen Men rewarding is its subjects.
Following Cummings's lead, McNulty takes a nonlinear approach in "As Is," presenting us with lectures and correspondence interspersed with Cummings's poetry, wisely choosing to sketch a portrait rather than bog the show down with endless biographical detail. As the lecturing Cummings, McNulty speaks straightforwardly, allowing the audience to grasp some of Cummings's feelings about love, war, and the poet's role. But when performing Cummings's poems, McNulty spins into a frenzy, embodying the playful magic of the words.
Critics have often viewed Cummings's poems as Rorschach tests--cleverly designed skeletons that allow the reader to become the poet, filling in the words and ideas that don't appear on the page. A good deal of Cummings's work would seem difficult to perform because so much of its impact depends on typography. McNulty addresses these difficulties in a number of admirable ways. At times his quirkily jerking, writhing body imitates the disjointedness of the writing. At other times he gives the biographical context that might help explain the work; in one instance, he gives Cummings's own interpretation of a poem before delivering it.
McNulty offers a whole grab bag of performance tricks in "As Is," using slides and funky lighting and even a disco ball to set the mood. But after a while this begins to look like overreaching, and toward the end many of the lighting and movement gimmicks are being repeated. Some of McNulty's kung fu-style postures grow dull, and one wonders if he might serve the poetry better by toning down some of the physical business.
In "The Haunted Bird: The Tales and Times of Jerzy Kosinski" Mozes offers a more traditional biographical approach, though his interpretation is also loaded with clever lighting effects and stage business. Kosinski's tale is rather contradictory: his tortured, horrified voice in such books as The Painted Bird didn't seem to match the smooth, charming, even charismatic talk-show guest he later became. Mozes separates these two voices by interspersing scenes of Kosinski discussing his intriguing history with terrifying scenes from his work, making the separation clear by changing the lighting as well as his accent--speaking with a Polish accent when he plays Kosinski. The approach works because there are so many overlaps between Kosinski's life and the lives of his characters. One can chart Kosinski's own life through the stories of the tortured Gypsy boy roaming through Poland witnessing horror after unspeakable horror in The Painted Bird, of the celebrated author whose words, like those of Chance Gardiner in Being There, are taken as gospel by an adoring public, and of the solitary, tortured man who was The Hermit of 69th Street.
Mozes, an electrifying performer, succeeds in bringing Kosinski to life in the first half of his show, but falters in the second half, in which Kosinski refutes the accusation that he was a CIA agent and the Village Voice's charges that he did not write many of his major works. By devoting so much time to these issues, Mozes manages to make the charges seem a great deal more credible than they were. He also relies a little too much on resume-style biographical facts, dwelling on the awards Kosinski received for his writing rather than on the writing itself.
Yet Mozes does succeed in depicting Kosinski's tragic downfall. Perhaps unable to finally reconcile his smooth, joky exterior with the terrors he had experienced, Kosinski finally committed suicide. Mozes shows us the ultimate irony of a man who left his miserable homeland for freedom and yet found himself still trapped and tortured. As Kosinski wrote about his detractors in America, "They are still trying to cage the painted bird."