JUNGLE OF TONGUES
at Latino Chicago
at Latino Chicago
The Rhinoceros Theatre Festival, held annually in Wicker Park, offers many small up-and-coming companies the equivalent of the traditional tryout tour–the opportunity to test material in front of a live audience before fine-tuning it.
Charles Pike and Scott Baker, of PUS, have each assembled a one-man show about an individual in confinement. Pike’s Jungle of Tongues gives us convicted criminal Caryl Chessman in 1960, his 12th year on death row at San Quentin Federal Penitentiary. Pound Bound shows us the expatriate poet Ezra Pound in 1945, incarcerated in a U.S. Army detainment camp on charges of treason. Though both pieces will be reworked before opening officially, Jungle of Tongues is much closer to completion than Pound Bound.
Chessman is remembered nowadays not for his crimes–kidnapping and sexual assault–but for the controversy over capital punishment sparked by his trial and subsequent doubts about his guilt. The sickly son of poor parents, Chessman began his career by pilfering groceries to augment his family’s meager table, then graduated to automobile theft, robbery, and extortion–usually aiming the latter at brothels, bookie joints, and other businesses unlikely to complain to the police. After being impounded in juvenile and later adult reformatories, Chessman found himself, at 26, arrested as the “Red Light Bandit” (so called because he would disguise his car with a police-vehicle dome light and surprise couples parked in lovers’ lanes, offering to ignore their “infractions” in exchange for money and/or sexual favors). Though Chessman protested his innocence, his record made him a likely suspect; it didn’t help matters that one victim had suffered a mental breakdown as a result of her trauma. On May 2, 1960 (under California’s “little Lindbergh law,” which made “kidnapping with intent to harm” a capital crime), Chessman was executed.
Pike prefaces his portrait of Chessman with snapshot testimonials from three other death-row inmates–one a rapist, two murderers–all of whom are puzzled at being sentenced to death. Their crimes were committed so casually as to seem almost accidental; the perpetrators are barely aware of the moral implications of their acts. Pike then introduces us to Chessman, who acquaints us with the sordid circumstances of his life and the dubious details of his trial, sometimes speaking in the first person and sometimes in the third. He makes a case for his innocence, notes that the “little Lindbergh law” was overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, and raises the usual rumors of mob involvement and a last-minute reprieve gone awry. Pike has done his homework–most of the show I saw was improvised from the performer’s memory, with only occasional assistance from onstage materials–but he needs to focus more closely on his thesis: that any maker of mischief, no matter how insignificant, may someday find himself facing death for his transgressions. Still, in its present incarnation Jungle of Tongues imparts lots of interesting facts about Chessman, but Pound Bound tells us virtually nothing about Ezra Pound.
Pound’s life is certainly worthy of scrutiny: Born in the minuscule town of Hailey, Idaho, in 1885, he proclaimed himself a midwestern populist, though he lived most of his life in Europe. His 56-year relationship with his wife and 50-year relationship with his mistress, both of whom bore him children, constitute one of the longest and most successful menages a trois in literary history. His distortions of C.H. Douglas’s theory of “social credit” (a variation on Marxism) led Pound to embrace Fascism and make a series of radio broadcasts for which he was eventually declared a traitor (he escaped prosecution only because he was pronounced mentally incompetent to stand trial). Even an account of Pound’s escapades among the artists who congregated in Paris during the 1920s would have provided a full and interesting evening.
Scott Baker’s Pound, speaking to us from his cagelike cubicle, makes no mention of wife or mistress except to remark that he is not permitted to communicate with either. He covers the salon days by mentioning his practice of eating centerpiece flowers at dinner parties, and by recounting a vulgar anecdote about a man who defiantly exposes himself–literally–to a roomful of lesbians, only to have them expose him–figuratively–as the poseur he is. (Pound claimed that Hemingway told him this story, but it’s difficult to imagine the hypermasculine Hemingway–or the wannabe masculine Pound–telling a joke that relies on male humiliation for its punch line.) Baker glosses over Pound’s notorious anti-Semitism by having the character state only that he doesn’t hate individual Jews but the bankers who conspire to control the money, many of whom are likely to be Jewish. This leads into a reading of his “Canto XLV”: “With Usura hath no man a house of good stone / . . . . Usura blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand / And stoppeth the spinner’s cunning.”
Baker bears an uncanny resemblance to Pound, not only physically but vocally. He reads the poems in Pound’s ringing voice, like the pealing of slow bells, with a heavy nasal burr one of Pound’s colleagues likened to that of a “drunk Scotsman,” and in a measured tempo designed to overwhelm the audience in the first minute and lull them to sleep in the second. Unfortunately, Baker spends too much of Pound Bound reading Pound’s poetry and not enough impersonating the egocentric author, who comes off here as self-effacing as a talk-show guest.