Frank Farrell

at Club Lower Links

Despite the varieties of elocutionary entertainment that have sprung up in recent years–from performance poetry to narrative monologues by Spalding Gray et al–the art of Frank Farrell remains difficult to classify. Theater practitioners who have worked with him know him as an actor and director, a New York reviewer declared him a mime (his face does resemble Marcel Marceau’s without makeup), and poetry aficionados at the Uptown and west-side poetry slams recognize him as Rap Master Keats, the rock ‘n’ roll romantic.

In his latest spoken-word concert, Homeboy, Farrell is all these and more. John Keats is here, his 19th-century verse laid down to house-music rhythms (“But, oh, on the heather / to lie with both our hearts a-beating / a-beating / a-b-b-b-b-beating”), along with Victorian rhymester William McGonagall (sometimes known as the worst poet in the English language), and H.P. Lovecraft, whose shipwrecked Tommy happens upon a race of ancient sea monsters in “Dagon.” Farrell also brings us a romantic young man from Dorothy Parker’s “Sentiment” who has an anxiety attack when his cab passes the streeet where his ex-girlfriend lived, and John Updike reminiscing about his boyhood in rural Pennsylvania. Framing this lineup is a vaudevillian who sings, among other things, the jingle the late Walt Kelly wrote for Pogo’s presidential campaign (“From Shomoken to Hoboken / Chenango to Chicongo / I go goo-goo going ‘Go, go, Pogo!'”).

It’s a motley company, each character thoroughly unlike his companions–the better to display the versatility of their creator (who was struggling on opening night with underpowered smoke effects, a short microphone cord, and a sore throat). Yet the humanity Farrell gives all these diverse personae endears each one to the audience.

Farrell starts the evening off with Rap Master Keats and his runaway euphuism, and follows with William McGonagall. These pieces illustrate two of the factors that contribute to the success of Farrell’s entire presentation. First is Farrell’s sense of timing–he recognizes the limits of the audience’s ability to concentrate and deliberately plants moments that allow the audience to relax and laugh without breaking the tempo of the story. For example, Keats first recites a poem in the conventional romantic manner, rolling his Rs and his eyes, then he suddenly lightens up mischievously when the disco-salsa beat begins. That change in mood prepares us for the recitation of another longer, serious poem, after which comes a scherzo in the form of another dance-beat sonnet or two.

This technical manipulation might be sufficient to hold an audience’s attention, but Farrell uses a second technique to make the characters engaging as well as interesting: Each character takes himself very seriously, confronting us with an earnestness of purpose–and a faith that we share that purpose. This faith enables McGonagall to ignore the amusement of the audience at his doggerel and to continue with stubborn enthusiasm until we applaud his audacity in sticking it out to the end.

These two factors, while not particularly important to the broad humor and bravura theatricality of the first pieces on the program, become crucial to the appreciation of the longer and more serious pieces. H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dagon”, with its baroque language (“Across the chasm, the wavelets washed to the base of the Cyclopean monolith”) and its oh-so-slow build to a terrifying climax, could easily provoke the sort of tittering one gets from an audience allowed to grow so uncomfortable with the intensity of a piece that they push it away. Farrell cleverly evades this effect. His nightmare-crazed protagonist, who has periodically dosed himself with paregoric, licks the last drops of the sedative from the rim of the glass in a manner pathetic but still comic enough to justify laughter. The tension, momentarily released, then builds with greater intensity, culminating in a vicarious horror when this helpless man meets his death.

John Updike’s “117 Pennsylvania Avenue,” the longest and newest piece on the evening’s program, presents the opposite difficulty. Essentially a series of humble and ordinary memories of a humble and ordinary man, it has none of the flash and flourish that decorate the more dramatic works. By this point, however, the audience is willing to indulge him for a length of time we might not have granted Keats or McGonagall.

Technical dexterity may start to explain why one raconteur is a pleasure to listen to and another is not, but it can only explain so much. Farrell has magic too, and you only have two more chances to see for yourself whatever it is he does so extraordinarily.