Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Pound
Theatre Artists Studio
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Camelot, Chicago and Fun Home


Maureen Dias Watson and Steven Mastroieni
Photo by Mark Gluckman
In a song from the 1949 musical South Pacific, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" to warn people that a person's prejudices are developed, or taught, by what they hear from others. In the play Pound, which is set in 1958, the controversial expatriate American poet Ezra Pound has been accused of treason for his anti-Semitic and un-American statements that millions heard from the hundreds of Italian radio broadcasts he made in the early to mid-1940s in which he referred to Jews as "filth" and praised Adolf Hitler, Nazism, and Mussolini's fascism. Was Hammerstein's warning correct? Did Pound's words teach people to have hatred of and take action against—or even kill—Jews? That question is at the center of playwright Sean O'Leary's intriguing and captivating drama. Theatre Artists Studio presents the local premiere of this 2018 Off-Broadway play with a superb cast and concise direction that results in a riveting and thought-provoking production.

Ezra Pound was a well-respected poet who was also known for discovering, grooming and shaping the works of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Robert Frost, and T.S. Eliot. But he also was known for those controversial radio broadcasts and articles he wrote. The play asks, how can someone who wrote such beauty, and fostered such exceptional talent, also have also written such horrific statements?

The play is set in 1958, 12 years after Pound was arrested for treason. Once Pound was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial, he was transferred to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington D.C. Since he's been diagnosed as incurable, which is the reason he's still in the hospital 12 years later, there is most likely no possibility of him being tried and given the death penalty for his actions. The play focuses on the efforts of his friends, who are trying to get him released at the same time that his psychiatrist is on sabbatical in Africa, which means that Pound is assigned a new doctor.

At first, Pound has the upper hand in the relationship with his new psychiatrist, Dr. Ann Polley. When she reveals that she used to write poetry and that her father was a poet, too, a bond is formed between the two and Pound offers his support as he urges her not to give up on her original passion. However, Dr. Polley is intent on finding a cure for the "incurable" Pound by breaking him down and making him see the damage his words have done. When facts are revealed, the control shifts from patient to doctor in a cat and mouse game in which words are proven to have meaning, and an individual comes to the realization that they have to learn to live with the truth and impact of their actions.

Pound is a slow burn that builds to a very satisfying conclusion that will most likely have you discussing the piece and Ezra Pound afterward. However, the first act is a little unfocused and slow going as the characters are introduced and the thrust of the plot starts to jell. Also, the agitated, snobbish Pound is a blustering, loud and obnoxious man and, while interesting, he is also extremely off-putting. O'Leary attempts, somewhat, for us to have sympathy for Pound, but it's hard to feel for a man who has said, and continues to say, such horrible things.

Steven Mastroieni and Maureen Dias Watson are excellent as Pound and Dr. Ann Polley, respectively. Mastroieni does very good work with a part that constantly changes and shifts through various personalities. He morphs from agitated to delusional and from snobbish and rude to a quiet, brow-beaten and depressed man, with exceptional skill. It's an excellent, larger-than-life performance full of nuance and multiple layers. Dias Watson is just as good as the doctor who is somewhat mousey and quiet at first, and someone you think will be steamrolled over by Pound, but in act two when Polley's true intentions are revealed, Dias Watson exposes a relentless power in her character once she realizes she's got Pound in her trap. Her well-delivered facial expressions and varied vocal inflections perfectly depict the subtle and calculated control her character has over Pound.

Patti Davis Suarez is wonderful as Nurse Priscomb, the woman who has a strong and close relationship with her patient—Pound says they know each other better than they know themselves. When Dr. Polley questions Priscomb's support for a man who has said horrible things in the past, she states "he's a cranky old man, not a menace." We see in Davis Suarez's perceptive performance how someone can have a fondness for a person even if they continue to say horrible things. David Heap is good in the supporting role of Pound's friend who is trying to get him released, though I wish his narration that bookends the show was a bit more passionate.

The fireworks that explode in the interactions between doctor and patient are mesmerizing to watch in director Carol MacLeod's superb staging that makes impressive use of the static and simple but effective set by Deb Mather Boehm.

O'Leary's play does a good job in depicting this fictional therapy session and, in the end, even though we may not have any sympathy for a man who has done and said such horrible, anti-Semitic things, it still makes for an engaging, thought-provoking play. With an excellent cast and sharp direction, watching Pound at Theatre Artists Studio wil have you truly understanding that words have meaning.

Pound runs through October 10, 2021, at Theatre Artists Studio, 4848 East Cactus Road, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information visit www.TheStudioPHX.org or call 602.765.0120

Director: Carol MacLeod
Set Design: Deb Mather Boehm
Lighting Design: Stacey Walston
Sound Design: Tony Robinson and Carol MacLeod
Costume Design: Marney Austin

Cast:
Ezra Pound: Steven Mastroieni
Dr. Ann Polley: Maureen Dias Watson
Nurse Priscomb: Patti Davis Suarez
Archibald MacLeish: David Heap


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