BUK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHARLES BUKOWSKI
Live Bait Theater and Prop Theatre
at Live Bait
CAN YOU HEAR ME MR. SZCZEPANSKI?
Tight & Shiny Productions
at the Project
When an insistent reading public forced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to resurrect a hero he had destroyed, the vexed author must have been pleased by his early decision not to relate the adventures of Sherlock Holmes from the title character’s point of view. Continuing to write about a character after he has become boring is irksome, but not half so irksome as having to write about a character who is presumed to be its creator. Given the confusion in the public mind between art and autobiography, writers making extensive use of the first-person narrative voice can find themselves imprisoned in personalities whose success costs them their own growth as well as the respect of their peers. (Leonard Cohen barely escaped, but Rod McKuen, a fair-to-middling songwriter before his popular poetry books locked him into the persona of a lovesick adolescent, is now ridiculed by people who have never read a word by him.)
When Charles Bukowski appeared in Ron Mann’s 1985 documentary Poetry in Motion, one could already see the encumbrance imposed on him by the character he created for himself: Henry Chinaski, all-time loser. The one who never wins the pay raise, the girl, the bet, or the fight. The one who always steps in the dog shit and throws up on the person least likely to tolerate such treatment. The one women love and leave within a few hours. The one who discovers the corpse. He had none of the cloying charm of Chaplin’s tramp, and accepted his ill fortune with a shrug and a gallon of muscatel. Chinaski served his maker well, winning him a huge following of semi-literati. But while the other poets featured in Mann’s film are seen performing their new works, Bukowski, who was then 65, is only Chinaski, shuffling about like an old dog, mumbling misanthropic commentaries on modern poetry. (“It’s not that I’m so good. It’s that the others are so bad. Are they jerking me off or what?”)
Playwright Paul Peditto saw the conflict between the man and the legend, the writer of the short story in which Chinaski masturbates into a glass vase that–naturally–shatters (sending him to a doctor who turns out to be an ex-Nazi, etc) and the writer of the poem on the Vietnamese monks who set themselves on fire to protest the actions of their pro- American government: “Sophisticates make statements of explanation, / but I have seen the red rose burning / and this means more.” Peditto’s Buk is a tribute to the storyteller and the poet; it’s homage and redemption, a “statement of explanation” made with the greatest compassion for all who opt for ars longa over vita brevis.
Buk is told as a series of reminiscences by the older Chinaski, whose first words are “What was I doing before the age of 35? Dying, sweetheart, dying.” We see the young Chinaski working in a post office under a supervisor who’s a cross between Captain Bligh and Ivan the Terrible, and we see his friend Lou crack under the strain of the regimentation. We meet Chinaski’s pals–Indian Mike, who calls everything “a bagga bullshit,” and Petey the Owl, who says, “Guy’s an asshole on earth–he’s an asshole on the moon. Makes no difference.” And we meet a caravan of individuals nourished on alcohol and sometimes art, with no escape but sex or suicide and no dream but one of security with freedom. “The myth of the starving artist was a hoax,” says the Chinaski who lived through the Depression. “A man’s soul is rooted in his stomach. The thing to do was to keep four walls around you. If you had four walls, you had a beginning, you had a chance. Give a man four walls long enough and he could own the world.”
Eventually Chinaski finds himself sought after for lectures and panels at literary conferences where posturing wordsmiths argue over how the aim of poetry “should be to barter a firmer divinity,” and for poetry readings before audiences who want only “the drunken idiot clown.” His publisher nags him to write more and faster (Bukowski proved something of a golden goose for Black Sparrow press), and women seduce him with literary name-dropping (“I wanted to ball Henry Miller, but I arrived too late”). Young poets invade his home bearing “300 poems I wrote in two months–how can you not like them? I was published in the LA Times!” “They come for a blessing,” the exasperated Chinaski explains. “One touch on the forehead will make them whole. Lock the doors–these hellhounds run in packs!” But they keep coming. A woman who calls him “Daddy” recites a list of her ex-lovers that sounds like it was taken from obituary columns. Finally Chinaski’s blanket tries to kill him, and as he cremates the demonic bed cover in his wastebasket, he muses, “Isn’t life madness? We’re all wound up like toys. A few winds of the spring, it runs down, and that’s it. I searched my hands for cuts. The hands of Christ were beautiful hands, but there wasn’t a scratch, not a nick, not even a scar on my hands. I could feel the tears come down my cheeks, crawling like heavy senseless things without legs.”
Director Scott Vehill has assembled a cast of solid journeyman actors, many of whom have made a specialty of playing earthy common folk. Leading the parade is Vince Balestri as the older Chinaski, in a phenomenal impersonation relying as much on a physical transformation (he somehow manages to make his boxer’s physique shrink before our eyes) as vocal virtuosity (he gets the characteristic Bukowski drawl, with its extended final syllables, down perfectly). Right alongside is Doug Spinuzza as the younger Chinaski and Dan Rivkin, who has one of the hardest-working faces in Chicago theater, as his sidekick Lou. The rest of the cast fill multiple roles with unflinching honesty and sympathetic understanding. Particularly memorable performances come from Turk Mueller as the sadistic supervisor Stone, Gordon Gillespie as a civil servant, Val Olney as a poetry groupie, and Scott Baker as a pseudo-Buddhist professor of English. Sharon Evans’s stageful of paint-stained shower curtains suggests amorphous urban locales seen through a fog of alcohol and squalor, costume designer Gina Vera McLaughlin displays a keen eye for period detail, and drummer Jim Pizzillo’s spirited jazz riffing provides lively accompaniment.
Lon Chaney is said to have once remarked that the height of terror is a clown at midnight. In Richard Strand’s Can You Hear Me Mr. Szczepanski? we begin with five clowns at 8:30 AM, waiting in the title character’s office for a chance at employment. They are Liz and George, aka Daisy and Benny; Betty and Alfie, aka Betty and Alfie, who live in Evanston, wear elaborate and expensive costumes, and bicker constantly; and Louie, aka Lonesome Louie, a weathered old Auguste-face with little more than dim memories and a trademark prop teddy bear. As the wait for Mr. Szczepanski grows long, the five discuss their situation and its possibilities, reevaluate their aspirations and ambitions, and finally come to a realization of what is real and important. “Did you ever wonder,” asks one of them, “what a clown would be like in a world where there weren’t any clowns and he had to be something else?”
Richard Strand’s script is so intelligent and thoughtful that you want to drag people in off the street to see it. Carefully and kindly dismissing all the cliches connected with the craft of clowning and the personalities of its practitioners, he makes every turn of his deceptively simple story simultaneously surprising and logical. When Alfie confesses that he has forgotten to buy a birthday present for his baby son, Louie offers him the stuffed bear we have come to think has been his companion for decades. When we later learn that this is not the case–stuffed toys have a way of disintegrating rapidly when used on stage–we don’t feel cheated. Reality may contradict illusion, but the illusion Louie has created for us out of love is still ours to keep. An understanding of this balance is what saves Mr. Szczepanski, arriving 13 hours late to find one irate clown still waiting, from the fate that earlier befell a young director who didn’t understand and was thoroughly trounced by the clowns.
Can You Hear Me Mr. Szczepanski? is not without flaws. George sometimes sounds more like a stand-up comedian than a silent clown, and Alfie’s defense of capitalism seems at odds with the rest of his character. But the cast, under the direction of Brett A. Snodgrass, deliver meticulous and sensitive performances. They include Carri Coffman as the gaminlike Liz, Frank Dominelli as the cynical George, David Wagner and Breisa Youman as the infantile Alfie and Betty, and Mark Bernstein as the gentle and otherworldly Louie. Contrasted with these manufacturers of make-believe are Jackie Mellor as a put-upon secretary, Steve Key as the young director with no sense of humor, and Tim Sullens as Mr. Szczepanski.