(Photo courtesy of 16th Street Theater/Anthony Aicardi)
16th Street Theater has opened its 2011 season with "The Beats," an amazing adaptation of the words, particularly the poems, of the Beat Generation. Whether or not writers Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg were influential enough to give their name to a whole generation—an issue considered with comic skepticism in the show—the work itself certainly was. And adapter Marilyn Campbell has conspired with director Ann Filmer to demonstrate once for all how well that work has stood the test of time. There’s nothing musty or nostalgic about this portrait of a world now nearly 60 years gone, nor is there anything that even faintly matches your preconceptions of a poetry reading.
A cast of five young actors, aided and abetted by a pair of veteran jazz men who are the embodiment of hip, recreate the world of the Beats, from its fear of the Bomb to its obsession with “negroes” to its defiance of conventions regarding drug use and sex—whether having it or just talking about it. The four men are very strong, particularly John Taflan, charged with the daunting task of re-creating Ginsberg’s iconic "Howl" (“I’ve seen the best minds of my generation .. .”). He gets the feel exactly right—a tone somewhere between jubilant and frantic, language somewhere between lyrical and incoherent, life right on the border between terrifying hallucination and equally terrifying reality. The adaptation is so fresh and faithful and its selections so well-chosen that it can dare to include an Act II scene in which the company presents some really bad Beat work, in full confidence that by that time the audience can tell the difference between it and the stuff that changed American language and consciousness.
The only weakness in this extraordinary evening is the work of Carly Ciarrocchi. Some of that is unavoidable given the Beats’ marginalization of women, a topic handled without squeamishness by Campbell. But the actress is apparently so steeped in the ethos of contemporary performance poetry that she can’t manage to recite without importing hip-hop moves which are simply out of period. Rap’s shoulder shrugs and cocked hand gestures are heirs of the Beat style, not copies of it. The [white] Beats’ hit-or-miss forms of homage to black people are cousins of the work now created by African-Americans themselves, but cousins several times removed. So Ciarrocchi’s movements are as distracting in the jazz-soaked atmosphere as an aria would be.
Nonetheless, “The Beats” is a thrilling immersion in the headwaters of contemporary American culture, just as Campbell’s adaptation (with Curt Columbus) of "Crime and Punishment" was an unforgettable plunge into Dostoevsky. Whether you already know the poems or can barely place the writers’ names, for this one evening you will share in their ecstatic communion.
The Beats is bound to sell out: it plays only through February 6 in the 50-seat house at the Berwyn Cultural Center. Get your tickets now.