Friday, November 4, 2011

Frost-bitten at Merrimack

Gordon Clapp as "Robert Frost"
It's easy to be seduced, I think, by A.M. Dolan's This Verse Business (at the Merrimack Rep through November 13). And particularly easy to begin to imagine that it's something it's not.

What it is, is this: a slight but genuinely - indeed, often deeply - affecting entertainment, stitched together from the poems of the late, great Robert Frost along with utterances from the many recitations the poet gave on stages throughout New England (and elsewhere) in the last years of his life.

It is not, however, anything like a biography.  Nor is it about Robert Frost, the person.  It is instead about "Robert Frost" the persona.  It is the re-creation of a self-performance by a raconteur very carefully crafting a personality to match his poetry.  It tends to make audience members say, "You know - he was just the way I thought he'd be!"  Yes.  Exactly.

We've seen this kind of thing before, of course - Hal Holbrook and Julie Harris pulled the same trick with Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson, respectively, years ago.  This Verse Business, however, strikes me as a bit more complex than either of those two one-man (or -woman) warhorses.  For "Mark Twain" the personality was always obviously a theatrical construction (even his name was fake!), and as for the Belle of Amherst - well, she's a complete historical cipher, isn't she.

But Robert Frost floats somewhere between these two biographical poles.  In fact the actual personality within the famous persona - the flinty, self-reliant Yankee farmer with a warm heart but dark places in his soul - has become a bone of contention between competing biographers.  His personal failures - and there were many - have now been extensively picked over by various chroniclers; one even went so far as to claim the poet was an egotistical "monster."  Needless to say, revisions and re-revisions of that condemnation have occupied the academy ever since.

The man himself,  just before his first success.
For my part, I find it easy to imagine that Frost (like most of us) was neither quite as appealing as he would have liked to appear, nor as terrible as his most avid critics would like us to imagine.  I merely point out that This Verse Business only gives us half that argument - Frost's half.  But to many, that's more than enough, because the production includes a generous sample of the poems themselves, read in full (of course most are short as sonnets - indeed, some are sonnets). And the persona that Frost learned to perform them in does map well to their surface as well as their depths (he might have made a good playwright. frankly; he has certainly done most of A.M. Dolan's work for him).  In a way, as we listen, we realize we don't want to know more about Frost; we're happy to revisit what he himself felt was universal about his experience, rather than what was petty or particular.

And luckily, it's clear actor Gordon Clapp (familiar from his role on NYPD Blue) and director Gus Kaikkonen share the same attitude.  Their vision of Frost may be a forgiving one (like his own), but it's still gently mature, and alive to the shadows lurking in almost all the poems.  Which come to subtle life in Clapp's thoughtful, un-showy, fully-inhabited presentations.  The echo of the death wish beneath the reverie of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening;" the dissatisfied acquiescence to balance that undergirds "Mending Wall;" they're here, as is the haunting drama of "Death of the Hired Man," perhaps the evening's most piercing sequence, in which Clapp's performance reaches its height.  There are other familiar pleasures - as well as some unexpected ones.  I wasn't familiar with one of Frost's last, great poems, "Never Again Would the Bird's Song Be the Same,"a touchingly romantic elegy to Eve (and by extension his own lost wife Elinor) - so its inclusion here was a wonderful, if poignant, surprise.

But then I confess it's hard for me to pretend I don't love the chestnuts, too.  And Clapp's thoughtful interpretations unpretentiously drew out what perhaps is most precious about Frost's deceptively simple odes: the sense that despite their carefully calibrated meters and rhymes, they were nevertheless minted whole, perhaps from the stony earth of New England itself.  I did have a few caveats about the production, here and there - chiefly that the evocation of Frost's farmhouse by Kaikkonen was far too clean and quaint.  Something both more severe and weather-beaten would have been more apropos.  But that couldn't sour me on what in the end was a lovely experience.  Anyone who cares about this great poet - or his work - will want to catch this memorable performance.

No comments:

Post a Comment