To some people, poet Allen Ginsberg could represent everything that’s wrong with America; some of them might have been among the small number of people who walked out at the intermission of Friday night’s performance of Hydrogen Jukebox by Skylight Music Theatre (unless they were just disappointed that the jukebox wasn’t playing hits from the 50s). The operatic work, created in collaboration by Ginsberg with his old friend and fellow Buddhist Philip Glass, doesn’t mince words about politics, or culture, or freedom, drugs, sex, or life; Ginsberg was no word-mincer; his intensive investigations of America’s shadow side could offend quite a few people today, as they did then. To be charitable, this setting of a collage of excepts from Ginsberg’s 30-year metier doesn’t offer many clues to an audience not intimately familiar with the poetry of William Blake, Rimbaud’s “immense derangement of the senses,” William Burrough’s “cut-up method,” Hindu gurus, Zen aesthetic theory, and basic Buddhist doctrine. But even if you’ve heard nothing at all about Allen Ginsberg, you will come away from this show knowing three things about him: he was unapologetically homosexual, he favored Eastern religions, and he was against war. For the rest, a sizable fraction of the text’s very personal references will come across as hermetic, if not baffling.
But what splendid bafflement it is! Music director Viswa Subbaraman, Director Ted Huffman, Choreographer Zack Winokur, Projection Designer Sven Ortel and Lighting Designer Carrie Cavins have created a total performance work, sophisticated in ways we’d expect to see in New York or London, but which might strike some Skylight audiences as a bit rarefied. Visually compelling, its palette of off-white, shades of gray, and cathode-ray blue, playing over assertively bland costumes and furnishings, seems to invoke an American world as seen through Ginsberg’s poetic eyes: monochrome, soulless and rather sinister. Winokur’s choreography centers around slow, deliberative walking, reminiscent of the walking meditation done at Buddhist group retreats, and recalling the 80’s work of another Glass collaborator, Robert Wilson. It mixes up the space and calms the mind, creating a bodied rhythm for the text we both hear and see projected on the theater’s bare back wall. High-contrast monochrome video projections show mostly ominous images: rolling clouds, billowing smoke, cityscapes, marching troops, and lots and lots of military hardware, from battleships to blossoming mushroom clouds.
Whether Ginsberg’s free-ranging semaphoric verse style suits operatic recitative is perhaps open for debate; but if any music suits it, Glass’s does: his slow repetitive measures, inspired in part by traditional Indian scales and rhythms, chime with Ginsberg’s stated desire to make contemporary language into mantra: sacred utterance, with everything that implies. The music manages to be lush and spare; abstract but jazzy, meditative yet mysteriously pulsing with tension. The young, attractive cast sings gorgeously; Subbaraman’s small musical ensemble delivers a rich, limpid sound, and whether the theme is lofty, accusatory, or scatological, one thing is certain: there is not a cliché, poetic or musical, to be found.; it’s always alive, fresh, and raw. Ginsberg’s stature as a great poet is affirmed. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if we catch every reference: the sounds and meanings of the river of language flowing over us have their own purpose, and definitely makes their main points clear.
Ginsberg himself is represented chiefly by a singer who is considerably taller, blonder, and more clean-cut than the shaggy poet could have ever been (not that he’d likely object). Baritone Dan Kempson, for all his boy-next-door good looks, takes the beat rebel to heart, glaring defiantly into the audience. feverishly laying pen to paper, grinning naughtily as he strips down to briefs to pantomime gay lovemaking in a sequence so tasteful as to offend only the terminally homophobic. The show purports to trace Ginsberg’s observations of contradictory America through vignettes from 50’s nuclear anxiety and beat exuberance, through 60’s dissent and countercultural efflorescence, to 80’s political polarization and spiritual exploration. We see Ginsberg the tense young New York intellectual; Ginsberg the party animal (though there can only be a very remote resemblance between these Gap-clad performers and any party in the 60s or 70s ever); Ginsberg the lover; the political satirist, passionate critic of materialism, ardent meditator, and, of course, Ginsberg the open-hearted scribe of the Zen moment, a poetic trope he picked up from his Buddhist studies. By the end of the show, in a lovely and moving a capella ensemble piece, we see him as the all-accepting sage, embracing life in the inevitability of death.
It’s difficult to reconcile Ginsberg’s overarching commitment to raw truth with the urbanity of this production, though. Lovely as it is, it cools his Whitmanesque excess, as if to display it in a tinted-glass vitrine. Maybe it’s Glass’s influence, trying to calm down his excitable friend. But it’s a bit sobering to recognize that the artists who put this piece together are themselves too young to have experienced any of the events it depicts; for them, it’s a period piece, black-and-white as old Civil War photographs. Maybe this accounts for frequent scenes set in nondescript office spaces and apartments: maybe the young artists are trying to place themselves in the poem: passing joints at a beat party, chanting “om” at the Pentagon, marching in the streets against the Contras, or meditating in a solitary cabin in the Rockies. Maybe they just hate America. Or maybe, just maybe, they recognize in themselves the Good Gay Poet’s limitless richness of spirit, and that his willingness to love life in its minutest detail precludes allegiance to any narrower vision.
Viswa Subbaraman, the Skylight’s new Artistic Director, might think twice before programming such a controversial piece again—but we hope he does. He’s done a great favor to Milwaukee by bringing us challenging, mind-expanding work that we’d normally never get to see.
Music by Philip Glass, Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
by Skylight Music Theatre
Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway.
runs through March 30
For tickets, call (414) 291-7800 or go to skylightmusictheatre.org.