By George Maguire
“We are worms.” — Winston Churchill
“We are glowworms.” — Robert Lowell
Gifted writer Lynne Kaufman’s structured one-act plays bring us the beauty of language in the pairing of You Must Change Your Life and Divine Madness, at the Marsh San Francisco, starring two of the Bay Area’s top actors, Charles Shaw Robinson and Julia McNeal.
Movingly directed by Lauren English, the 65-minute evening opens first with You Must Change Your Life, where we meet German poet Rainer Maria Rilke answering queries on poetry from Franz Krappus, a 19-year-old soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Krappus sends Rilke a poem and asks for feedback. The resulting ten-letter correspondence forms Rilke’s postmortem masterpiece Briefe an einen Jungen Dichter (Letters to a Young Poet), compiled and published by Krappus himself. These letters were a vital part of my own Bachelor’s Degree German education.
I wish both these plays were broadened into full-length.
Rilke (beautifully portrayed by Shaw with a slight German accent) encourages Krappus to avoid reading all criticism as it “Fails to touch a work of art.” Be true to yourself and ‘Go into yourself’, to find answers and create art. Wearing her own father’s Army jacket, Ms. McNeal plays Krappus with emotions ranging from pained insecurity to the resolve of a gifted artist.
The evening is as much about the performing range of Shaw and McNeal as it is about the poets. (A side note: the letters from Krappus to Rilke were found in Krappus’ estate and published separately in 2020.)
The second play, Divine Madness, dives into the fractured and storied relationship between renowned poet Robert Lowell and writer Elizabeth Hardwick. It is a relationship of intellectual verbal bantering and rage, as Lowell tries to ingratiate himself back into the life of his ex-wife. He left the intellectual Hardwick for Lady Caroline Blackwood, heiress of the Guinness Brewery company.
Lowell described his erudite and quite beautiful wife Caroline as “a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers.” Kaufman’s play brings out all of this in compiling the evidence, the results of the divorce, and the children involved. Lowell himself documented this relationship in his Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry, The Dolphin.
Lowell was a manic-depressive artist who was often hospitalized with a bi-polar disorder. The sudden bursts of anger and rage are depicted in Shaw’s range of emotional insecurity as are McNeal’s strong firm grip on Hardwick’s own post-Lowell life with their daughter Harriet. What pervades through pain, frustration and anger are love, passion, and respect.
I wish both these plays were broadened into full-length. They give us a taste, an amuse bouche, and the Rilke piece, good as it is, feels tacked on to make this a longer evening that could be worthy of “Poetic Justice.”
ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco based actor and director. and a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. He is a Professor Emeritus of Solano College. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Production||'You Must Change Your Life' and 'Divine Madness'|
|Written by||Lynne Kaufman|
|Directed by||Lauren English|
|Producing Company||The Marsh, San Francisco|
|Production Dates||Through January 29, 2023. Saturday at 8:30, Sunday at 5pm|
|Production Address||1062 Valencia St.
|Tickets||$25 – $35|
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review PICK?||YES!|