at the Garage

Strange thing, seeing an actor portray a person who’s not yet dead. Of course, there are plenty of plays about dead poets: Carl Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, to name a few. But when you perform the poetry of a living person–especially if that person is Allen Ginsberg, who still does a great job of playing himself, writing and performing poems about his life–you’re up against some pretty stiff competition.

That being said, I’m not sure whether Peter Carpenter is really trying to play Ginsberg in his one-man show, Allen Ginsberg: The Crooked Flower. I’m not sure exactly what he’s trying to do, but whatever it is he makes a valiant and heartfelt effort.

Carpenter is a singer, dancer, writer, and actor; he’s also young, smitten with Ginsberg’s words, and even more taken by the poet’s sexual affairs with the likes of Neal Cassady and Peter Orlovsky. But his infatuation seems puppy love, an exaggerated wonderment that such words could be spoken about such things, and isn’t it all deep and wonderful? Well, yes, it is, but Carpenter doesn’t probe far enough into Ginsberg’s life or work to bring that out.

The show opens with Ginsberg’s poem “America.” Swinging a bare light bulb in a circle above his head Carpenter exclaims, “America! I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” He continues to recite, shining the light on his face, shining it in the faces of his audience: “America! What’s wrong? Why are your libraries full of tears?” Is Carpenter blaming us, the 11 PM audience consisting primarily of other actors and like-minded spirits? Are we the problem?

Throughout the performance Carpenter’s youthful infatuation with Ginsberg’s work gets in the way of any real connection with it. The problem is most evident when he performs a letter Ginsberg wrote to Cassady after their sexual relationship had dissolved. Carpenter’s delivery is interesting enough. He begins speaking calmly and collectedly from a chair in the middle of the stage, then, as the letter grows more frantic, he stands behind the chair, bending knock-kneed over the back.

But he delivers the lines (as he does throughout) with a certain reverence, almost as if they were holy. And frankly, with lines like “I hate and fear you so much that I will do anything to win you again” and “I had depended on you to take care of me for love of me,” the letter is an embarrassment. Even Ginsberg’s biographers exclude large portions of it, dismissing it as maudlin. Is Carpenter telling us that, like Ginsberg, we’re all idiots when it comes to love? Or simply that the neurotic poet is more idiotic than most? Do we need to know this? It sheds no light on Ginsberg’s character nor does it offer any insight into homosexual love, an important issue Carpenter alludes to throughout but never tackles directly.

As he recites a lot of the poems Carpenter dances. This is a difficult thing to do without seeming preposterously pretentious. But he pulls it off. (He doesn’t need to unbutton his shirt to show a black leotard underneath, though. A loose-fitting shirt would have worked just as well, and would have eliminated the need for this overdone gesture.) And that’s most of the charm of Allen Ginsberg: The Crooked Flower. Carpenter leaps around and recites Ginsberg’s poetry in a charming but naive manner, all for love of him. As Ginsberg often does, Carpenter lights a candle and burns some incense. Though the evening provides little insight into the work of this fascinating poet, it does provide an entertaining introduction.