at the Latino Chicago Theater Company

There’s something sad and beautiful about the residue of our former industrial might: the abandoned steelworks, the falling-down factories, the rusty railroad spurs hidden in the weeds. Which may explain the appeal of the poetry of R.C. Wilson, performed by Richard Henzel in his one-man, hour-long show Street Guide to Gary Indiana. In his author’s notes Wilson says he is obsessed with “finding the ghost of the industrial heartland,” a ghost he impishly names Gary Indiana.

A few more than half of the poems Henzel performs concern this elusive character, who at times comes across as a mythical hero of the Paul Bunyan variety. In “The Paper Boys,” for example, Wilson imitates myths about the origin of the moon or the stars to tell how Gary Indiana invented smog and water pollution. At other times, Indiana seems more like a parody of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, a humble newspaper vendor who hangs out with the guys and still comes up with the idea “that revolutionized Western society, creating 10,000 jobs.” At still other times, he’s more like one of those charming, slightly eccentric characters who inhabit Richard Brautigan’s prose poetry. In “Roots in the Rubble,” for example, Indiana is fascinated with the relics of the recent industrial past and keeps “rusted railroad spikes while tossing arrowheads through the trestle ties.”

Unfortunately, the fact that Gary Indiana changes so radically from poem to poem–from force of nature to popular hero to foible-filled regular guy–undercuts the power of the series. Nor does it help that Wilson’s poems vary so wildly in quality. Some of them are mysterious and beautiful; others fit Gore Vidal’s definition of free verse as “carefully ruined prose.”

The strongest poems in the show don’t even involve Gary Indiana. In “Punch Press” the poem’s narrator sacrifices his fingers and toes one by one to an omnivorous industrial machine. In “The Pastoral Gary” he describes a landscape as alien as the face of the moon: “The arc lights expose a factory nightscape to smoke-laden moths, who fall from the singe to float on the lids of barrels.” Though neither of these poems has the accumulated power of, say, Antler’s “Factory,” to name another work by a contemporary midwestern poet concerned with blue-collar life, Wilson still packs a lot of punch into these dead-on confrontations with the ugliness of industrial America.

Wilson would be hard-pressed to find a better actor to perform his poetry than Henzel, best known for his one-man show Mark Twain in Person, performed most recently at the Body Politic. Henzel, a trained actor, finds a middle ground between dull, academic poetry reading and the self-indulgent histrionics that frequently characterize poetry slams–a middle ground that sacrifices neither Wilson’s poetry nor the power of his characters. In some cases, using a performance technique developed by Canadian director Keith Johnstone (with whom he studied at Second City), Henzel chooses one of a half dozen masks and wears it while he reads. (Johnstone believes wearing a mask puts actors into a trance state that allows the spirit of the mask to possess them.) At other times Henzel performs maskless. Both styles work well with Wilson’s poetry, but Henzel’s masked characters tended to be a bit cartoonish and flat.

Ironically, the best poem of the evening, “The Witch of Koos,” was not written by Wilson at all but by Robert Frost. This poem about a woman haunted by the skeleton of an ex-lover is so well-written, leavened with just the right amount of comedy and ghastly detail–the woman keeps one of the skeleton’s knuckles in her button box–that it puts even the best of Wilson’s poems to shame.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Johnson Photography.