Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Marin Theatre Company Brings Back
Also see Richard's review of The Beginning of August
The Marin Theatre Company is currently presenting an examination of the Beat Generation and its hero Jack Kerouac. This complex man, who actually was not a real "beatnik," became the guiding light of a generation of bohemians, changing the youth culture of the nation. I was privileged to meet both Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in the mid fifties here in San Francisco when we were filming a movie on Grant Ave. I saw the souls of both of these men up there on the Marin Stage, especially Liam Vincent as the cuddly Allen Ginsberg.
Visions of Kerouac takes on the almost impossible task of giving us Kerouac's life from the '40s through his twilight year of 1969. I generally believe that it is impossible to show the life of a celebrity on stage in two and one half hours (with intermission); biography plays usually jump from scene to scene with little or no purpose. However, I do find that Martin Duberman's play rises above this liability. Visions actually flows smoothly from scene to scene with no grating effects.
Visions was first presented 25 years ago at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, where it was an instant success. Several regional companies attempted to present the play and then it disappeared. Lee Sankowich directed the Odyssey production, and he and playwright Duberman decided to revise the script and present the 25th Anniversary of this fascinating drama.
Duberman's script take a long, hard look at the free thinkers of over two generations; compelling artists such as Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder and Neal Cassady come alive on the Marin stage. They were on a road that is filled with alcohol, drugs, sex and depressions. We see how Jack Kerouac is in the middle of the cultural tornado, a part of the scene and yet not a part. His sexuality is always in question in this drama. He is a passionate but flawed human being.
The first act of the drama is a gem. The ensemble work of the actors is exciting, and the timing is perfect. Liam Vincent as Allen Ginsberg is a loveable teddy bear who loves everyone, and Rod Gnapp as Neal Cassady is electrifying as the fast talking ex-con and ladies' man. (Neal later became the hero in Kerouac's On the Road). Robert Parsons as William Burroughs and Michael Ray Wisely as Gregory Corso shine as free thinkers of the era.
The second act is almost an entirely different play, and much of the spontaneity of the drama is lost. All of the characters have moved out, and the center of attention is now the rise and fall of Jack Kerouac. Michael Janes is outstanding as Kerouac. He gives a tour de force of acting and his scenes are convincing. Some of the scenes do slow the force of the drama as they become dirges of beatnik philosophy. However, there are some brilliant scenes in this act, such as one in which Jack has become a successful author and visits Neil who is now married with children in Denver. The meeting starts out great but soon dissipates into an ugly scene involving the sexuality of Jack. This is brilliant acting on the part of Janes and Gnapp.
Another wonderful scene involves Jack on a talk show in New York with two ultra conservative authors questioning the meaning of the beat generation. Rather than have three actors sitting in chairs in front of the audience bantering back and forth, director Lee Sankowich has only Janes on the stage and sound designer Norman Kern using voices of the other two mocking Kerouac. At first I was confused by the scene but upon further reflection, I found it an exhilarating presentation.
The last scene with Michael Janes on stage is also superb. His whole life is crashing in on him and he contemplates his life, his sexuality, his "love" of Neal, his Catholic guilt, and his bonding with a group of the young writers. It is all too much for him and he slowly goes mad. This is acting at its best.
Visions of Kerouac runs thru June 8th at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or visit on line at www.marintheatre.org. The MTC's 03-04 season starts with the Musical For Me and My Girl on September 4th.