The tip of the Ginsberg
"Beat," based on the story of Allen Ginsberg's 1957 obscenity trial, undermines the transcript around which it's built and makes too little effort to explore the characters and their times.
By TOM X. CHAO
"Beat," a drama/musical, attempts an uneasy amalgam of documentary, drama, and musical theater in depicting the life of poet Allen Ginsberg. The play centers on the 1957 obscenity trial surrounding the publication of Ginsberg's opus "Howl." Performed by a fresh-faced, Gap-ad-ready cast of seven, this production employs a variety of theatrical histrionics but seems afraid of or indifferent to getting inside the well-known Beats, instead preferring to cite source material awkwardly and quote from it at length. (For an example of how historical non-fiction material can be staged successfully, see the Rude Mechanicals' "Lipstick Traces," adapted from the Greil Marcus book.)
The minimal staging in the downstairs space of the Culture Project utilized only a few props, chairs, and set pieces to suggest various locales, including a courtroom, mental institution, and others. The on-and-off-in-15-minutes pace of the Fringe Festival limits how much can be done with the set, but still this production does little to evoke a sense of the period, either of the times or places the San Francisco of the '50s or the New York of the '40s.|
Cast members are pressed into service portraying various Beat Generation luminaries, but unfortunately have been given little with which to build their characters. As they slip between ponderous expository speeches and into dramatizations of the scenes they describe, the difference seems often negligible. Danny Pintauro, of TV's "Who's The Boss?" bears a slight resemblance to the young Ginsberg (especially in glasses), but he makes no attempt to capture the rhythm and timbre of Ginsberg's voice, one of the most distinctive cadences of American poetry. Ginsberg's homely yet hypnotic intonations are readily accessible to current audiences on various commercial audio recordings or on the web (allenginsberg.org). Ezra Nanes presents a Jack Kerouac with no distinguishing features other than bland good looks. Geoffrey Molloy gives his William S. Burroughs a bit of a rasp but doesn't manage the nasal Midwestern twang familiar from "Drugstore Cowboy" or "Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales." Admittedly a Beatmania (not the real thing but an incredible simulation) would present its own set of challenges, but might have at least enlivened the proceedings.
Director and playwright Kelly Groves doesn't trust the words that he has painstakingly researched to carry the weight with which they are imbued. One of the more embarrassing moments comes during the recitation of "America," another of Ginsberg's signature poems. Mr. Pintauro declaims frantically while other cast members hum "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and unfurl a large Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag. A listening to Ginsberg's own steady rendition of this poem on The Beat Generation audio recordings points out the extraneousness of the theatrical trappings, which go so far as to drown out the words of the poem.
The show runs overlong at 2 hours (with one intermission), but in its favor, the pacing stays quick and the ensemble fairly tight. The musical aspect of the production remained mystifyingly underdeveloped, with only hand percussion and a bit of acoustic guitar employed at a few moments. (The bongo drums are a dead giveaway.) With the wall-to-wall dialogue washing over the audience during this production, one might wish for a full-on Broadway-style musical treatment of this material, again a prospect with many pitfalls (but who wouldn't relish a singalong to "A Supermarket in California! What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman!"). Even a group of inner-city kids rapping Ginsberg's stanzas over hip-hop beats (no pun intended) might have ushered into the theater some of the true starving hysterical naked life that Ginsberg poured into his work.
Overall, "Beat" presents a slick, superficial treatment that may appeal to some. But it seems a shame that so little has been wrung from so much promising material.
|AUGUST 12, 2002|
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