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V 35 Issue 32

 
 
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I'm A Poet And I Know It
I'm A Poet And I Know It
Review of First Class

By Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

First Class
By David Waggoner
Directed by Kurt Beattie
Starring John Aylward
ACT Theatre
July 27-August 26


David Wagoner wrote, in his introduction to his one-act play First Class, "The most charismatic man I've ever met was & Theodore Roethke, and if I've been able to recapture some of that charisma here, I'll be satisfied." Yes, I think David captured some of that charisma, so perhaps David is satisfied.

In the first twenty minutes of this performance by John Aylward, I felt a keen longing to have been able to have Theodore Roethke as a teacher. Indeed, I felt almost compelled to take out some paper and pen and write down, as fast as possible, some of the ideas and recommendations that were being poured like a waterfall into my ear. For that alone, I started to think it would be money well spent to buy several tickets over the run of the play, so I could come back and listen again to his teaching. If the entire play stayed in the classroom setting, I would have signed up for many repeat nights of instruction.

However, the rest of the play devolved into a demonstration of Roethke's madness and bipolar disease. While this was, undoubtedly, a very important part of Roethke's life and behaviors, the manner we were shown it was distancing and confusing. It became a long rant with statement after confusing statement that we just had to sit through to get to the end.

Roethke apparently was an inspired teacher. Though he taught poetry, which even he thought was absurd, his point of view lent itself to life in a much more comprehensive way. He was able to cut through student inattention like a hot knife through butter.

Wagoner seems to have best captured his own experience as Roethke's student and colleague. First hand experience gives this play its life and solid footing. Where the play loses ground is when Wagoner conjectures about Roethke's inner experience of madness. I would have loved to have understood better. What about Roethke's illness was important for me to know? Is there a different way to demonstrate how his illness was overcome in order to write, or to see him struggle to crawl back toward reality in order to function? Instead of context, what we saw was the mess. Chaotic inner dialogue with his dead father, philosophical agonizing, and some sing-song poetry.

John Aylward is a stalwart soldier in both Seattle theater and television drama. There's no question of his ability to perform this one-man play. As Roethke in the middle of madness, he struggles mightily to convey that chaos. However, most of the play, the pacing seems like he's been shot out of a cannon, with very few moments of contemplation or discovery. He's not assisted much by the odd projections of illegible writing beamed down from the lights to the floor or the static stage presence of the teacher's desk, which is supposed to sometimes be his desk at home, I think.

When Aylward is clearly in the classroom, he is in his element as Roethke. This is where he knows what he's doing and it shows. If Roethke's madness could have been wound into his classroom antics, as perhaps students experienced along with his charisma, perhaps the lesson of the play would have been more clear.

Critiquing is a new arena and, sometimes, difficult for me. I try to stick closely to a description of what I see, rather than to declare what ought to be on stage. I'm no expert, just a lover of theater. I don't want to write about things I didn't like. Still, it's my job to give you a taste of my experience, so you can decide a little bit better how to spend your money. And, by the way, your feedback is great, whether agreement or criticism. I encourage you to let me know if you see this play and disagree with me. You can write sgncritic@gmail.com.

For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or call (206) 292-7676.

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