Saturday, January 15, 2011
The Beats at 16th Street Theater
Review by Hedy Weiss of the Sun Times: www.16thstreettheater.org
It is barely mid-January and already I have seen what might just turn out to be one of the finest productions of the winter season. It’s called “The Beats,” and it is a rousing, thought-provoking, verbally brilliant, jazz-infused, tragicomic reinvention of a time in American history — the beatnik culture of the 1950s — that in many ways turns out to have been far more idealistic, spiritual and artistically driven than the hippie culture that emerged a decade later.
Adapted by Marilyn Campbell, and first seen at Writers’ Theatre in 1997, “The Beats” is now getting what will surely be the defining production of this generation at Berwyn’s now hotly competitive 16th Street Theater. Director Ann Filmer has done a “bang-o” job of things, gathering a cast of five bravura young actors whose parents might not even have been born in the era. But they clearly all have channeled back to the days of coffeehouses and manual typewriters, poetry-filled nights and smoky jazz clubs, consumer culture and conformist lifestyles — as well as the oppressive cloud of the atomic bomb and the Cold War. And superbly backed by two onstage musicians who probably do recall the beatnik world from their most youthful years — drummer Grant Strombeck and bass player Doug Lofstrom — they create a “word jazz” incantation that easily will knock you off your feet.
Campbell has drawn directly from the work of the major driving forces in the “movement,” including the vibrant, varied, feverishly sexy-spiritual poetry and prose of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and Ed Sanders. Of course “the beats” were never really a “movement.” They were far more about a way of being than about being a political force — interested primarily in the individualistic and visionary (at times enhanced by marijuana, peyote or chemical-free Zen Buddhism). Their mantra was free thought, experimentation, improvisation and a “Whitmanesque wisdom.”
The show is delivered here with absolute bravura force. John Taflan (tall, dark and Tony Kushner-like as the Student) gives a sensational rendering from “Howl,” Ginsberg’s controversial 1955 epic poem that triggered obscenity charges. As the Holy Hipster, the sinewy and charismatic Adam Poss (so memorable from last season’s “Scorched” at the Silk Road Project) suggests the seductive Kerouac. Dark-eyed, passionate Carly Ciarrocchi lights up the stage as di Prima, the lone Beat Chick who realizes she is forever on the periperhy in this mostly male world, though she revels in the sensuality and freedom of it all. John McGillberry, the Jazz Cat, does a terrific job with Corso’s hilariously terrified meditation on marriage. And as the Dharma Bum, Malcolm Callan serves as a one-man cautionary tale on drugs, madness and a higher consciousness,
Amid the fire and disillusionment, there also is plenty of terrific satire here, most notably by way of Sanders’ memory of a particularly indulgent poetry reading at the fabled Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village. And be sure to check out the vintage copy of a 1959 Life magazine in the theater lobby that captures the snarky attitude toward the beatnik aesthetic back then.
Like Tony Fitzpatrick’s “This Train,” another recent 16th Street production, “The Beats” deserves to find a second home at the Steppenwolf Garage or a similar venue. It could easily be the hit of the season for hipsters both young and old.