Through a series of flashbacks, the author and his colleagues shrewdly dramatized the poetry by hop-scotching through the English language with ebullience, suspense, and even humor. (``What's so funny about a poet?'' is one of the play's earthier remarks.)
Beset by infuriating flashes of fever, rejected in love, on the passionate edge of hysteria and death, pathetically trying to hustle money from his poetry, and begging for poison to end his tragically short life with dignity, the character pushes the notion of humanity toward the limit.
Austin Pendleton, a smallish, unpre-possessing actor who has made a career playing memorably forgettable weirdoes, grew tall with unforgettable nobility as he goes about (with clown-red nose) portraying John Keats's sickly final days on Earth.
Hiding in the shadows and shambles of Pendleton's poet was an intelligently or-ganized performance that raced through a gamut of conflicting emotions, actions, and virtues: from terror to bravery; from swashbuckling charm for the lady he fancied to stunned rejection; from the triumph of the laurel to the stabbing pain of doctors' needles and humiliating critics' barbs; and from a tender kiss for the brother who gave him consumption to murderous hate when his family denies him money.
Convincingly coughing up blood, which seemed to stick to his words like the struggles of an orator overwhelmed by speech impediments, Pendleton fashioned an earthy poet who flies ethereally through imaginary worlds, listening to a thrush one moment, church bells in the next, describing the rain that drowns and rots the wheat, while measuring the moon and seeing immortal life shining.
The somewhat tatty set by Mark Symczak, adorned with mosaic decorations and lighted by David Alan Comstock, represented the house near the Spanish Steps which now marks Rome's memorial to Keats and Shelley. It functionally framed the fine ensemble.
Romantic English poetry was meant to be read and savored, the words returned to again and again, even memorized--not dished out once like dialogue. The author addressed this problem by dramatizing the creative act as a poet struggling with words and meters (``Da-dum-da-dum-da-dum''--literally!); then, at the end of the play, completing what we've heard before with renewed, tearful meaning. (Williams tried to do the same, less successfully, in Night of the Iguana.) The strategy satisfied by concluding a theatrical event that was stunning, pathetic, moving, and monumental.
(Disclosure: Austin Pendleton performed more than three decades ago in this reviewer's work.)
Copyright 1996 Marshall Yaeger
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