Poetry, in the modern world, is a private, quiet art.
Words are born in the hush of a poet’s mind, and find their way silently to a page or screen. Later, the words are reborn in a reader’s mind, where they find their way silently into images.
Ages ago, when humans first did poetry (and nobody could read or write), it was a loud public art. Poems — usually heroic epics — were told to a crowded room, with instruments accompanying. And lately, some poets have again started speaking aloud to groups.
But now, on a small NoHo stage, the True Focus Theater is doing something really different with poems. They’re dramatizing them. Only unlike epics, few modern poems have stories or characters — so the troupe has to find other ways to bring them to life.
In Life, Death & the Middle, they do it quite skillfully.
The show’s 18 poems, by a dozen living authors, range widely in style and tone. So do the ways the actors embody them.
At times, the poem’s situation is simply made visible. For Kelly Grace Thomas’ More Than Seven Questions to Ask the Boy on Fire When Holding a Pail of Water, Reilly Loayza holds a bucket, saying the wry lines as her emotions shift with the stanzas. For Vanessa Cate’s Two and a Third of Three Poems Written at a Bar, Natalie Hyde and Crystal Salas speak and enact the turbulent dismay of an introvert trapped in public, while the other actors jeer and dance in familiar “meet market” rituals.
At times, a metaphor shapes the poem’s onstage presence. In Matt Kellegrew’s Returning Is Arriving for the First Time Again, Robert Walters crosses and re-crosses the empty stage, musing aloud, until his journey rests beside an old friend, Tucker Matthews. In Cate’s Katsui, the Japanese title (and leading image) inspires a kimono flowing around Salas as she speaks and moves.
Some poems’ characters or elements emerge in more familiar dramatic form, as in Angie Hoover’s Never Have I Ever, and Joseph Nichols’ Half Empty. Others take on more abstract physical being, such as Kellegrew’s Untitled and Nichols’ You Come.
This hour rushes by, like a swift-flowing river, yet we are allowed —
in fact, encouraged — to swim deeply in each pool. I weep for the intensity of our bodies’ desires in Salas’ The Optimist. I am shocked by delicacy in Mortal Tenderness and Danny Pierce’s Forever Their.
I fall in love with the moon, and the poet’s love for her, in Half Full.
Only twice do I wish for anything different. Nichols’ opening poem, The Gathering, is dense in language and idea, and Matthew Tucker’s comic Ode to Apple Pie a la Mode is madly fast. In each, I’d welcome an ever-so-slightly slower pace and even more exact articulation.
In more than 50 years of reading and writing poetry, I’ve never experienced poems this way. Throughout Life, Death & the Middle,
I feel I’m watching and listening to each poet — not at a desk or a reading, but amid the peopled images living in her/his own mind.
Yet at the same time, I’m comfortably hearing my own inner voice
as I read (except that I have no text in front of me), and happily seeing my own imaginings take shape.
In theatre, I prefer minimalism: the less we show, the more we only suggest, the more the audience can imagine and project, becoming the play’s co-creators. But I’m surprised to find that with poetry, less isn’t necessarily more.
In Life, Death & the Middle, the True Focus troupe handles poems with care, bringing them to life on stage in ways that go beyond reading quietly in a corner. They enrich our experience without taking control of it. Their creations let us delight in these poems, and encourage us to find more for ourselves.
Let’s do more staged poetry!
Life, Death & the Middle, by several authors, directed by Vanessa Cate and Natalie Hyde.
Presented by True Focus Theater, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
Sundays at 7:00 pm, through Feb. 22.
DISCLOSURE: Many of the members of True Focus Theater are friends of mine, and I wrote one of the poems used in the show. I had no other part in the production.