Three Men in a Boat/ Kaddish for Allen Ginsberg | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Three Men in a Boat/ Kaddish for Allen Ginsberg 

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THREE MEN IN A BOAT, StreetSigns, at Eclipse Theatre Company, and KADDISH FOR ALLEN GINSBERG, StreetSigns, at Eclipse Theatre Company. It's hard to imagine two more different writers than straitlaced Victorian humorist Jerome K. Jerome and sexually free beat poet Allen Ginsberg, or two more different works than Jerome's blandly comic novel Three Men in a Boat and Ginsberg's anguished cry to the heavens "Kaddish." Yet here they are playing in rep at StreetSigns, representing two ways of translating literary works to the stage.

George Brant and Derek Goldman's adaptation of Three Men in a Boat is careful and reverent, conserving the best bits in Jerome's witty but long-winded work--most notably the gentle but hilarious way he demonstrates what pompous fussbudgets his three middle-class protagonists are. The casting is dead-on--Joseph Wycoff is particularly killing--and their decision to stage the whole novel in a Victorian parlor, including chapters devoted to various misadventures in a boat on the Thames, is inspired.

But after a while a restrained adaptation of a restrained work grows tiresome. Thirty minutes into this 80-minute work I found myself yearning for someone to express something stronger than mild disappointment.

In contrast Kaddish, put together by Goldman and choreographer Peter Carpenter, is an emotional, evocative, but not particularly well structured collage of Ginsberg's poetry and journal jottings. At the center of the show is the white-hot poem Ginsberg wrote one weekend soon after his mother died. "Kaddish" is easily one of Ginsberg's most moving pieces--only "Howl" is better--and the dance-theater piece Carpenter and Goldman made of it was so beautiful, so well declaimed that tears welled up in my eyes.

But overall the production is sluggish and unfocused, perhaps because Carpenter and Goldman never decide whether they're creating a tribute to the whole of Ginsberg's career--in which case there isn't nearly enough poetry or biographical material--or just one aspect of it: his heartbreaking relationship with his psychotic mother, his daring explorations of homosexuality, or his rise from rebellious, bookish Columbia undergrad to world-class poet and spiritual leader of the counterculture.

--Jack Helbig

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