The Drunken Boat | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Drunken Boat


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Seven Ages Theatre Company, at Le Cafe.

Idolized by Bob Dylan, imitated by Jim Morrison and Patti Smith, immortalized by Van Morrison and the Clash, and soon to be played in a major motion picture by Leonardo DiCaprio, Arthur Rimbaud is the prince of ghetto poets, long the poster boy for counterculture poetry. Yet little in Jeffrey Haddow's lyrical, nonlinear The Drunken Boat or in Seven Ages Theatre Company's tentative but earnest production suggests Rimbaud's power and magnetism.

Unlike the apocalyptic voyage of the abandoned "drunken boat" in Rimbaud's vaguely autobiographical poem, Haddow's 75-minute journey through the life of the poet is placid. More mood piece than drama, this play glides back and forth between a portrait of a young man full of venom and poetry--for whom, as Rimbaud wrote, life was "a feast where all hearts opened and all wines flowed"--and a portrait of the world-weary arms trader he became, having purged "his mind of all human hope." To Haddow's credit, the play touches on a great many subjects--Rimbaud's rocky relationship with the infamous Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud's authoritarian mother, his travels, his deathbed embrace of Christianity. But because the play is at once so ambitious and so brief one gets only glimpses of Rimbaud.

Matters aren't helped by Le Cafe's quaint but claustrophobic basement space: one's proximity to the actors, who almost dwarf the stage, merely heightens the artificiality of Haddow's work. And the performers all seem to be holding back, perhaps for fear of overwhelming the audience. Patrick McCartney as the swaggering teenage Rimbaud shifts between being too timid and too overbearing, like Hamlet in a closet. This is a daring choice for the brand-new Seven Ages company, and they treat their material respectfully. But ultimately The Drunken Boat proves an unsatisfactory voyage.

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