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I missed their production last winter so I was excited to learn that 16th Street Theater in Berwyn has brought back their successful hit, "The Beats." Directed with flair and focus by Ann Filmer, this show is a thrilling, evocative tribute to the Beat Generation of writers from the 1950s, such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Gregory Corso. It's an engaging poetic scrapbook that captures a vivid and conflicted era, and it never flags in its drive or passion.
This is not staid readers' theater. The script by Marilyn Campbell is an adaptation of various literary sources. The actors perform their material with intensity, presenting literature that annoyed and often shocked mainstream critics.
The Beats does not simply provide some tidy little Time Machine that allows us a backward glance at a quaint bygone culture. Though the play, essentially an anthology, doesn't follow any particular storyline or linear structure, each of the two acts is presented with all the fire and ice of outspoken young hip-hop poets writing today.
The ensemble of five play off each other with conviction. The original cast from the winter run of this hit are reunited in this production.
Malcolm Callan is Dharma Bum, Carly Ciarrocchi is Beat Chick, Wardell Julius Clark is Jazz Cat, Adam Poss is Holy Hipster, and John Taflan is the Student. Most of the time the actors provide individual voices but at some points they perform in unison.
Taflan's delivery of pieces of Allen Ginsberg's controversial "Howl" at the end of the first act is especially electrifying.
The Beats were radical in their vision, expressing passion about a new and renegade individualism that actually had its roots back in the 19th century. Their spirit was fresh and groundbreaking. Yet female Beat voices were rarely represented or recognized in the '50s. Ciarrocchi addresses this fact in an angry piece by under-appreciated poet Diane di Prima.
There's a spoof of a Beat poetry reading that's hilariously delineated. Cool jazz punctuates much of the evening. Too often, as I mentioned, the essence of a period is remembered in stereotypes and inaccurate media-generated images, such as the sidekick "beatnik" character Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver, on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" sitcom 50 years ago.
The sedate literary establishment of the '50s did not exactly embrace the Beats' rejection of American materialism, their celebration of exuberant, often alternative, sexuality, and their fondness for drug experimentation.
Not all the material presented is poetic. A scornful, voyeuristic piece, a late '50s Life magazine spread, derisively described the Beats like they were an exotic species of creatures discovered in the wild: "The Negro is their hero, as are junkies and the jazz musicians."
There are wonderful, informative displays in the theater lobby highlighting the Beat writers, their literature, and their "hepcat" lives and times.
Patrick T. Murphy is the stage manager.
I was in high school in the early 1960s, a bit past the peak of the Beat years, but their culture and spirit had a significant impact on lots of us. We routinely made pilgrimages to Old Town for "beatnik" poetry readings at hipster hang-outs like Barbara's Bookstore (run by a real woman named Barbara) or rubbed elbows in coffee houses with "cool cats" who played bongos and sold signed mimeographed poems for a quarter a piece. I carried dog-eared copes of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg and "Coney Island of the Mind" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti around with me at school.
The Beats brings it all back. It is joyful and outrageous, vigorous and thought-provoking.