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A CurtainUp BerkshiresBerkshire Review
Pound of Flesh
The Porches Inn

No man who has passed a month in the death cells believes in cages for beasts
--- from The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound
Jonathan M. Woodward, Patrick Husted
Jonathan M. Woodward, Patrick Husted (Photo: Richard Feldman)
What do Richard Wagner, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound have in common?

All were brilliant artists. All represent the troublesome issues raised when an artist has morally reprehensible views. Wagner is probably the best known example of creative genius co-existing with abhorrent attitudes His flagrant anti-Semitism unsurprisingly made him Hitler's favorite composer. Eliot, a protege of the already influential Ezra Pound during the 1920s, exemplifies an artist integrating his increasing conservatism (and with it anti-Semitism) into his work.

Pound's rampages against usury, which anti-Semites typically associate with Jews, accompanied the shift in his cultural politics. His bizarre attraction to Mussolini's vision for Italy did not falter with the advent of World War II. His notorious pro-Axis propaganda broadcasts led to his being held for three weeks in an outdoors wire cage in the U.S. Army Disciplinary Training Center outside Pisa. From there, the almost sixty-year-old Pound, physically and mentally shattered by this brutal confinement, was moved to the Center's medical compound to await the outcome of his indictment for treason. It is in this tent that he began to compose the texts of The Pisan Cantos on which his postwar reputation would rest.

Ezra Pound
The real Ezra Pound
Playwright Michael Bolus has used this waiting and writing period to try to give us a sense of this mad genius attempting to save his reputation and his sanity and, more generally, examine the role of ideology on an artist's work.

A Pound of Flesh is neither an indictment of Pound, the bigot and disloyal American (he was born in Idaho and grew up in Pennsylvania), nor is it a vindication. While it would undoubtedly enhance your appreciation of the work to be familiar with Pound's work -- especially the Cantos -- the play stands on its own. In fact, it is more accessible than Pound's dense poetry. Its serious subject notwithstanding, it is often laugh out loud funny and has the added interest of Pound's evolving relationship with the young G.I. guard who is his only daily contact.

Unlike the Beckett collage, and then you go on (see link below), also directed by Peter Wallace, this play features three actors. However, the tour-de-force role is that of Ezra Pound and Patrick Husted takes full advantage of the juicy part Bolus has written him. As he frantically clutches at his sanity he manages to be slyly funny. Even as you find yourself hating some of what he says, you can'help but be moved by this gripping portrait of a brilliant but deluded man of letters.

The role of Private Cooper is far less showy but as played by Jonathan M. Woodward it adds a great deal to the enjoyment and accessibility of the ninety intermissionless minutes. Woodward is just right as the naive young American. His interchanges with Pound not only flesh out bits of the poet's biography but believably convey the sense of understanding and respect developing between the half-mad older man and the soldier who believes in all the things Pound has rejected. Woodward also ably handles his occasional switches to another voice and persona.

As for the third actor I mentioned, this is actually a voice-over that the director has chosen to make a visible presence. That voice (BTF's own artistic director Kate Maguire) recites from Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Visits to St. Elizabeth's" (the asylum where Pound was incarcerated for thirteen years as too mad to stand trial) -- first a line ("This is the house of Bedlam"), then two ("This is the man/That lies in the house of Bedlam"), then increasingly longer fragments. If you listen carefully to this interweaving of Bishop's poetic observations, the words will shed much light on Pound's complexities. Having Maguire periodically pop up in different parts of the theater adds visual impact but is at times distracting, like one of those vision tests where you're asked to keep your eye on a moving dot. To Maguire's credit, she plays this animated voice-over with the required lack of change in facial expression, but this said, her voice alone would have accomplished the same purpose. A regional director on a tight budget, could easily save one salary and mount Pound of Flesh as a two-hander.

Jeremy Woodward, who worked with Mr. Wallace on the Beckett show, has again created a two-tiered set that effectively abets the drama -- a sandbox-like prison tent and a raised level walkway against the back of which images out of Pound's internal musings are occasionally projected.

Will you come away understanding Pound better than you did before? Probably not. Will you remember the ninety minutes spent with Husted and Woodward and Maguire. Definitely.

and then you go on also directed by Peter Wallace
Other Summer 2001 Unicorn productions:
This Is Our Youth
A Dream Play

Pound of Flesh
Written by Michael Bolus
Directed by Peter Wallace

Cast: Patrick Husted (Ezra Pound), Jonathan M. Woodward (soldier), Kate McGuire (FemaleVoice)
Set Design: Jeremy Woodward
Costume Design: Wade Laboissonniere
Lighting Design: Tammy Owens Slauson
Sound Design: Jason A. Tratta
Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn, Stockbridge, MA, 413/298-5536, web site
8/08/01-8/18/01; opening 8/09/01
Mon-Sat. 8:30-- $25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 8/09 performance
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