Barto Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

There’s magic being made in the brick-walled, fishnet-hung basement of Cafe Voltaire. The principal magician is a dead poet named Dylan Thomas; but his posthumous power is supported by a company of directors, actors, and designers whose sensitivity to shifting moods and meanings makes Barto Productions’ Under Milk Wood one of the loveliest and funniest off-Loop shows in this writer’s 25 years of local theatergoing.

Under Milk Wood was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation but tried out in the spring of 1953 in a New York concert reading (later released on record) that starred Thomas himself, along with such American actors as Sada Thompson. By the time the play was broadcast on BBC radio in early 1954, with Thomas’s fellow Welshman Richard Burton in the lead, the poet was dead. (This production, probably unintentionally, coincides with Thomas’s alcohol-fueled death on November 9, 1953, a few days after his 39th birthday.) As the nature of these earliest performances might indicate, Thomas conceived of the work as “a play for voices,” in which a pair of narrators take the audience on an aural tour of the tiny, dumpy Welsh fishing village of Llareggub, described equally accurately as a “backwater of life” and a “place of love . . . as full as a lovebird’s egg.” Relying on the evocative power of Thomas’s lyrical rhythms and earthy, unorthodox images, the script explores the gulf between the townspeople’s dreary outward existences and their sensual inner lives; it has an imaginative fluidity that–as stage and film productions have often sadly proven–is easily ruined by attempts to bring the material to visual, physical life.

But since audiences are less and less inclined to sit still for sound alone, purely verbal renditions of this exquisite work are ever more rare. And most directors are reluctant to take on the challenge of fully staging the play. Luckily, Michael Barto and Peter Cieply aren’t most directors; and not only are they willing to accept the challenge, they meet it.

The essential ingredient in this seductive production is its keenly selective use of physical action. For most of the show’s intermissionless 100-minute running time, the emphasis is on sound: the sound of dialogue expressed in finely modulated, always articulate, but never affected speech; the sound of music, made lightly on flute, guitar, concertina, and hand percussion instruments (actor Patricia Kane is credited as musical director); and the ambient sounds of village life–wind whistling, chickens clucking, children giggling, sleepers breathing–created by the actors through clever but never show-offy vocal effects. Having placed the audience throughout the low-ceilinged room rather than in one restricted seating area, Barto and Cieply move the performers among and behind the viewers’ seats to enhance the atmospheric unpredictability of the sounds, the better to transform the small theater into a world unto itself.

The directors then keep viewers interested with occasional well-timed visual touches. Beautifully sculpted images convey key relationships, and Phil Martini’s skillful lighting design turns the sprawling but decidedly finite room into a seemingly limitless arena of visions that emerge and disappear.

In this way–rather than in the broadly literal strokes used in more elaborate, less effective renditions of the play–the company unlock the sense of magic and ritual at the core of this sometimes elegiac, sometimes wistful, sometimes sad, often bawdily comic portrait of the limbo land between reality and fantasy, dream and memory, in which rational proprieties collide with subconscious perversities.

The residents of Llareggub (the fact that the town’s name is “buggerall” spelled backwards is a fast tip-off to Thomas’s preoccupations with sexuality) are sometimes re-creations and sometimes spoofs of people Thomas knew from childhood. But more important, they’re aspects of the poet himself–expressions of his neediness, his joy in life, his acute sorrow about human frailty and mortality, his fixation on sex as nurturing and destructive.

Yet they remain marvelously individual as well, a glorious collection of eccentrics. They are introduced to us first at night, in the midst of their dreaming lives in a world where death shall have no dominion. Here are Captain Cat, the blind seaman who converses passionately with his beloved Rosie Probert, who in death has forgotten him; Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, the compulsively clean widow who, in nighttime fantasies, bullies and beds both of her dead husbands; frequently pregnant Polly Garter, who sleeps with many men but dreams only of drowned Little Willy Wee; Myfanwy Price and Mog Edwards, the spinster and the shopkeeper who conduct a blissful correspondence courtship with no fear of ever actually making contact; Dai Bread the baker and his two wives (one, a gypsy, reads the other’s fortune); Mr. Pugh, who meekly defers to his bossy spouse while secretly fantasizing her murder; Willy Nilly the postman, who not only delivers everyone’s mail but reads it to them (and everybody else); Mr. Waldo, whose nightmares trace the link between his sexual promiscuity as an adult and childhood erotic shame; Butcher Beynon, who torments his wife with lies about the source of his meat (“She likes the liver, Ben,” Mrs. Beynon says of their pet cat; “She ought to do, Bess,” he responds–“it’s her brother’s”); Ocky Milkman and Nogood Boyo and Organ Morgan and the local police constable Attila Rees; and presiding over them all to benign and totally irrelevant effect, the local preacher, Reverend Eli Jenkins–the doppelganger of the First Voice, expressing Thomas’s proper Christian as well as naughty pagan aspects–who delivers verse benedictions at sunrise and sunset to a God who may or may not give a damn: “And every evening at sundown / I ask a blessing on the town / For whether we last the night or no / I’m sure is always touch and go.”

The writer’s direct involvement with every character is one of the principal reasons that Under Milk Wood works best when a few actors play multiple roles, as is the case here, and the whole revolves around the First Voice–the narrator who is Thomas’s surrogate. The actors’ task is to make each role different while revealing their psychic connectedness to each other and to the author; the 11-person cast at Cafe Voltaire accomplishes this task superbly. Michael A. Garcia, mischievously sensual, poignantly distant, and movingly compassionate all at once as the all- seeing First Voice; Patti Hannon transforming herself in the middle of a gossip fest about Polly Garter’s misdoings from the snooty Mrs. Pugh to the breathless Mrs. Morgan; Patricia Kane brimming with prim passion as Myfanwy Price, then stiffening with puritanical pomposity as Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard; James Schneider lolling in infantile lustfulness as Nogood Boyo before straightening up into straitlaced Mog Edwards; Michele Messmer as Polly Garter cooing to her baby while nursing bitter memories of the loss of her lover; and Dai Parker-Gwilliam (a real Welshman) as blind Captain Cat kneeling to touch the untouchable dead love of his life Rosie Probert (Sharon Frei)–these are fine actors creating memorable moments out of great words. Which is what theater is all–and all too seldom–about.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott L. O’Neill.