Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011

Bukowski As Muse

UWM Labworks presents Fly Steffens’ tribute to the popular poet

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I find Charles Bukowski’s work to be extremely tedious. I am referring to his written work, of course. I can only assume his work for the US Post Office in LA was better than his written work, but it’s tough to say. Not that I don’t understand why people like his work. I just don’t find it to be all that interesting myself. His work just doesn't speak to me.  

I don't like Bukowsk's writing. Why go see a staged reading of a new play based on his life and work? I was invited to do so. And there are people in the cast that I’d want to see onstage even if they were in something truly awful. Nicholas Callan Haubner’s name stands out. He’s played a number of pretty unsavory people onstage at UWM and a few other places—he’s got kind of an interesting mutation of an anti-hero thing going on that could become interesting as his time onstage progresses. Gretchen Mahkorn is such an appealing presence onstage that I once willingly went to a Neil Simon show she was in. And Brittany McDonald has a really engrossing intensity about her that’s fun. So naturally I’m going to go see a show with these people. Even if it is based on the work of Charles Bukowski . . .

The show itself is written by UWM student Flannery “Fly” Steffens. It consists of three thematically linked shorter pieces: "Goldfish," "Love. Repeat" and "And The Sun Wields Mercy." For reasons unlikely to become terribly clear, the name of the show they all comprise is  Love Is a Horse With a Broken Leg Trying to Stand While 45,000 People Watch. Obviously the title is a quote from Bukowski, but why?. . . I don’t know . . . in any case . . . here are some initial impressions.

Goldfish

A woman who might be a prostitute and a man who thinks of himself as a poet share space in a dingy apartment, trying desperately to cling to a reality that seems as fragmented as an empty goldfish bowl lying in shards on the apartment floor. This would be a profoundly powerful piece for me if it didn’t remind me so much of Tennessee Williams’ The Lady of Larkspur Lotion—a short that was featured in a recent program of shorts staged by Fresh Page Productions. Had I not seen Williams’ piece so recently, I might’ve enjoyed this one more. There are some interesting images in it that generate a very distinct kind of dazzlingly shadowy desperation. But so much of what’s going on here thematically was covered so much more succinctly and poetically by Williams in The Lady of Larkspur Lotion. Nicholas Callan Haubner showed leading man capability in his reading. Brittany McDonald’s intensity diffused pleasantly in the role of a woman who was slightly drunk.

Love. Repeat

I may not have really felt much of a reaction to either of the other two pieces for various reasons, but this one really resonated with me. It’s one of those things that I’d always meant to get to in my own fiction . . . traditional leading male-type John Glowacki played a man caught in a very liquid reality. The woman sitting across from him (Gretchen Mahkorn) kept changing names without changing identities. And were they in a diner or at a racetrack? And really what time was it . . . a very casually liquid reality where time and space aren’t nearly as firmly affixed as we like to think they are. I absolutely love this as a concept.

We laughingly have this mental map of the universe with a tiny little arrow pointing to us: “you are here.” In reality, it doesn’t work that way. People travel tremendous distances without moving a muscle and people travel great distances  geographically at great financial and emotional expense to go somewhere else only to find themselves exactly where they were—only props and scenery have changed. I believe it was screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch who originally said, “wherever you go, there you are,” but it cold have just as easily been Siddhartha Gautama. This was a fun, fun short. And though some people might have some difficulty with this type of storytelling what with it being as dizzying as it is, I could watch an entire feature-length show like this. And love it.

And The Sun Wields Mercy  

Gretchen Mahkorn plays a painter who evidently doesn’t do a whole lot of painting. Matthew O’Rourke plays a novelist who can’t seem to finish a novel. John Glowacki plays a poet who seems to float through life completely inert. They’re all hanging out at a diner somewhere. This would’ve been a lot more fun if I hadn’t actually had countless conversations almost exactly like this somewhere on the East Side and Riverwest somewhere in the mid-‘90’s. The characters are kind of iconic . . . the story is kind of an allegory on the nature of art in the modern world—commerce versus aesthtics—roles versus identities and so on. Fly Steffens does a pretty good job of crystallizing some central themes in the lives of artists, but it’s ground that’s been covered a million times before by artists themselves. It’s very, very difficult to find insight into something that’s been analyzed to death already. In light of this, the fact that Steffens manages anything approaching insight is a huge accomplishment.

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As a whole, this is a fun look at the work of a very new voice as inspired by a very, very old voice. People who ARE huge fans of Bukowski’s won’t really get anything new here. In her note in the printed program, Steffens says, “I would dedicate this to Hank, [Bukowski] but he would hate all of this.” So she knows where she stands, but the piece is not without its love of Bukowski. The piece follows themes and milieu common to Bukowski’s work in a way that is exceedingly palatable to someone who can’t stand his writing. And so maybe I might want to look at some of his stuff again...

UWM Labworks will be staging one more reading of Fly Steffens’ Love Is a Horse With a Broken Leg Trying to Stand While 45,000 People Watch Sunday, November 13th at 2pm at Kenilworth 508 on 1925 E Kenilworth Place. Admission is free.  

 

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