Blake,Writers’ Theatre–Chicago. It’s remarkable how easily a subversive artist like William Blake can be repackaged these days into a tasteful bourgeois commodity. (Monet exhibit, anyone?) Blake is exactly what you’d expect from a company that calls itself Writers’ Theater–Chicago and performs in an upscale Glencoe bookstore: an actor portraying Blake, in smoking robe and unkempt coif, tells us in between orotund recitations of verse about the writer’s life, loves, visions, and philosophy. There’s even a porcelain-skinned angel who drapes herself across the furniture like a Maxfield Parrish wood nymph–when she’s not caroling her way through Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.
Director Michael Halberstam’s production is pleasant enough. As Blake, Gary Houston turns in a warm and welcoming if somewhat sleepy performance–until the second act, when he growls through Blake’s late prophetic writings as though the poet’s only inspiration were a tormenting inner demon, not the lifelong study of Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, gnosticism, alchemy, Boehme, and Swedenborg, to name a few influences. Like so many playwrights exhuming revered literary figures, Elliott Hayes forgets to ask why Blake needs to tell his story to a group of strangers, leaving Houston to come up with emotional stakes for a play that’s essentially encyclopedic. Blake’s fire burned so ferociously that any of his one-sentence Parables of Hell could better reward an hour and a half of contemplation.