Songs of the Pogo/I, Lech Walesa | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Songs of the Pogo/I, Lech Walesa 

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SONGS OF THE POGO

at Club Lower Links

When he died in 1973, Pogo creator Walt Kelly left behind not only 25 years' worth of comic strips but a fair amount of comic prose and poetry as well. Now admitted Pogo-phile Frank Farrell has collected a representative sampling of his work and shaped it into a three-man revue called Songs of the Pogo, which he is currently performing with Jon Beliveau and Ben Masterton at Club Lower Links.

This humble and unassuming show--the most complicated set piece is a hat rack on the back wall--goes a long way toward capturing Walt Kelly's low-key wit and intelligent charm. The show begins with Kelly's satirical campaign song, "Go Go Pogo," written, as Kelly explains in a story he wrote to accompany the song, not for Pogo Possum's '52 and '56 bids for the White House but for a gangly backwoodsman named Piedmont F. Pogo, whose race for the highest office in the land was cut short when his campaign manager discovered that the country already had a president.

Piedmont's story runs a bit long, as do the other tall tales sprinkled throughout the show, but "Go Go Pogo" is such a splendid example of Kelly's absurdist wit--"As Maine go o so Pogo go Key Largo, Otsego to Frisco go to Fargo"--that it more than makes up for the belabored introduction.

Songs of the Pogo contains 13 of Kelly's songs (plus one by Lewis Carroll), all of which futz with the language as playfully as anything by Shakespeare, Stein, or Joyce. "'Fore one can be three be two," goes "Many Harry Returns." "Before be five be four." Some of the songs even succeed in conveying a sentimental mood without making literal sense: "A song for not Now you need not put stay, / A tune for the Was can be sung for today."

Every song or so, Farrell inserts a selection from Kelly's reminiscences about growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1920s. It is these memoirs, rather than the forced comedy of his tall tales, that give us the best view of Kelly's gentle, sly wit. The family's beater Studebaker, Kelly wrote, was "evidently frightened of roads and seldom went anywhere very far or very fast." About his boyhood he wrote: "Those were times of entrepreneurs in knee pants who occupied themselves with painstaking projects which were either mildly successful but operated at a loss or failures and operated at a loss."

Farrell, whose careful speech and resonant voice betray his many years performing Shakespeare (he was a founding member of the Free Shakespeare Company), knows how to milk Kelly's carefully crafted sentences for every drop of humor. This is only slightly less true of Beliveau and Masterton. As singers all three men hold their own, with the result that even Kelly's weaker songs--the silly "Wither the Starling," the truncated "Lines Upon a Tranquil Brow"--are still passably entertaining.

Unfortunately the show passes quickly, and before you know it Farrell et al are singing the show's big finale: a rousing sing-a-long of Kelly's parodic Christmas carol "Deck Us All With Boston Charlie," written to the tune of "Deck the Halls." All the way home I kept catching myself singing it: "Deck us all with Boston Charlie, / Walla Walla Wash., an' Kalamazoo! / Nora's freezin' on the trolley. / Swaller dollar cauliflower alleygaroo!"

I, LECH WALESA

at At the Gallery--Chopin Theatre

Quite a different show is Jaroslaw Stremien's one-man homage to the dissident Polish union-leader-turned-president Lech Walesa. Originally written in Polish by Jaroslaw Szymkiewicz and Elzbieta Kisielewska and translated and adapted by Stremien himself, I, Lech Walesa is about as starry-eyed as they come. Told entirely from Walesa's point of view, it briefly recounts his pre-Solidarity life--his courtship, his marriage, his first crowded apartment--before getting to the meat of the show, his repeated clashes with the Polish authorities in the 70s and 80s. The play provides an interesting overview of the social unrest in Poland, with special emphasis on the 1981 strikes at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk.

Unfortunately, Stremien's Walesa appears to know no more about these pivotal events than your average National Public Radio listener. Stremien makes Walesa's emergence as the leader of the Lenin Shipyard strikes sound more like dumb luck than the culmination of years of struggle. It doesn't help that he delivers all of his lines in the same droning voice, or that the play ends with a 20-minute campaign speech.

Which is a shame, because Walesa's story is interesting. (And getting more so--last week Polish prime minister Jan Olszewski abruptly resigned after accusing Walesa of being a KGB mole.) Unfortunately Stremien seems to be in no mood to separate the man from the myth. He touches so briefly on the obstacles Walesa had to overcome that his rise to power ends up seeming utterly unworthy of tribute.

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