Prop Thtr

Someday you’ll be lying / there in a nice trance / and suddenly a hot / soapy brush will be / applied to your face / –it’ll be unwelcome / –someday the / undertaker will shave you

–Jack Kerouac, Scattered Poems

I don’t think Jack Kerouac was ahead of his time, or that he died too young. He was his time. He died on time. And he took his time with him, leaving behind a distorted legend as “king of the beats.” He also left behind a substantial body of literature so honest and open that no amount of media slander and cultural hype can wholly obscure the man behind the legend. Not if you do your research. Not if you go back to the original source.

Vincent Balestri, playwright and sole actor of Kerouac: The Essence of Jack, has apparently studied Kerouac to the point of obsession. And Balestri’s talent as an actor, and his identification with his subject, resurrects a Kerouac so real it’s eerie. Of course, there’s a lot to cover in Kerouac’s life: his relationship with his mother, his development as a writer, his travels, his egotism, his innumerable sorrows and irrepressible joys, not to mention his work. And, if you’re a Kerouac fan–and I’ll admit I am–you’ll come to this show with expectations as sprawling in scope as Kerouac’s own life. How does Balestri live up to that challenge? He goes for the essence of Jack, not a comprehensive chronicle, but a way of being, doing, singing, so that even the random moment defines the man.

Balestri relies on eight hours of material, from which he chooses the two hours’ worth that you see on any particular night. He improvises from Kerouac’s only published autobiography–which Balestri holds up for you to see–a single sheet of paper, typed front and back. The night I attended, Balestri covered events in Kerouac’s life including the creation and submission of the original scroll copy of On the Road, Kerouac’s drunken and discrediting performance at the Village Vanguard, and the time he appeared (and fell asleep) on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. But these events aren’t so much dramatized as they are improvised through a mixture of narration and playacting, with Kerouac doing the playacting. You see these incidents from Kerouac’s perspective, including even his inability to look Buckley in his “too rubbery” face.

When I say Balestri improvises, I mean it in the bop sense, like Kerouac in his prose (“screw the subordinate clauses”) or Charlie Parker in his music. This show even features a jazz band (of dubious merit) playing in the background of several scenes. And when Balestri improvises, it’s with certainty and a wild grace, melting down the distinction between actor and character.

There’s no fourth wall in this show. Usually that makes me uncomfortable–actors wearing half-formed expressions, invading the audience and trying to make you participate in the play. I feel under duress, like my boss or a cop is lying to my face and my role is to smile and agree. But Balestri doesn’t lie. He’s just trying to tell the story, don’t you see? And, after a shaky start, which made me think Balestri wasn’t going to be able to pull off this impersonation, he rose to the moment with such enthusiasm that his story needed to be heard, and I was leaning forward in my seat. I was crossing the fourth wall to get to him. And at intermission I walked out onto the stage because I had to get a closer look at a book that Balestri had held up earlier. Then, after me, maybe a dozen other people came up to look at the books on stage, and to touch them.

The point where the show really took off–and Balestri, the medium, became a clear vessel–was when Kerouac spun a comic tirade on how the media, and his own publishers, misrepresented the beats. Kerouac shows a few photos of himself that were put on his book jackets. An early one looks thoughtful, with downcast eyes, like the one you often see of Fitzgerald on covers of his novels. But later, when the publishers wanted to capitalize on the wild, drug-crazed notoriety of the beats, they used one that made Kerouac look like a thug. Then, jumping from the personal to the cultural, Kerouac whips out a movie poster of The Beat Generation. The poster illustration is tawdry, none too Zen, and laughably lurid. Kerouac points out the “beatnik” character, who’s wearing black leather gloves, the housewife who will be raped by beatniks, and the cop with his gun, who is the only figure of real violence. And Kerouac races on in this vein–describing, editorializing, mimicking, telling the story. It’s the young Kerouac, the Buddhist lunatic, on a roll.

Act two is more downbeat, which is no surprise, since it reveals the horrible dissipation of Kerouac’s latter years. Here he talks about his three failed marriages, alcoholism, and mental breakdown. A brief episode is devoted to Big Sur, a novel that, the first time I read it, I checked out of a medical library. It had been shelved there because it was considered such a fine subjective description of a mental disorder. Anyway, this side of Kerouac is as open in his pain as the younger Kerouac is in his joy. This part of the show also features a question-and-answer period. Someone asked if he’d ever attempted suicide. “Since 1960,” answered Jack. And holding up his plastic cup of wine, he commented that drinking was the only way a good Catholic boy could kill himself. Someone else asked him where he saw himself in 1967, two years before his death. “In the mirror,” Jack shot back, and you had the feeling that he didn’t find it a pretty sight. At this point, I could feel myself dragging my feet as the show was winding down. Jack the legend had already been put to rest, his youth was spent, and massive internal hemorrhage was about to finish him off.

The death scene itself wasn’t a scene, but only a blackout and a bow. Balestri the actor came up for air. It was no shock to see him as such, maybe because Balestri has formed such a close bond with his character over the past seven years that he’s been working on this show. But also because Balestri’s performance rests on such an easy familiarity with the actor/character duality. At the very beginning of the show, for instance, Kerouac thanks the actor portraying him and the actor thanks Kerouac. The two shake hands. Later on, some bozo slammed the front door of the storefront theater, disturbing the performance. Balestri the actor emerged in mid-stride, shouting, “Hey, this is a theater here!” And then, just before he submerged again, Balestri added, “Just had to get that out of my system.” The transition seemed easy, amazingly easy.

Yes, amazing. I’d like to say something quotable, like “Balestri is Kerouac!” but let me put it this way. At the curtain call, Balestri invited us all out to join him for drinks. I couldn’t even consider it. Kerouac lived to the hilt, and I admire that, but I don’t think I’d live too long drinking with Jack Kerouac.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jami Craig.