One of the functions theater serves is to take you to other places. Watching "Sam's Tormented Angels" at the Theatre Project, I was transported back 25 years, to a gym at Tufts University, where I sat entranced, listening to Allen Ginsberg read his poetry, chant mantras and sing some of William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience."
Teater Albatross, a Swedish troupe, has captured much of Ginsberg's spirit in this odd, poetic, biographical work, which is making its American debut here, before engagements at New York's La Mama E.T.C. and in Woodstock.
How much you get out of it probably depends on whether you're a Ginsberg fan. Even so, it's helpful to brush up on "Kaddish" and "Howl," the two Ginsberg poems on which actor/director Robert Jakobsson and his company have based most of the text.
The bulk of the four-person, 90-minute production emphasizes the relationship between Ginsberg and his mother, Naomi, a Russian Jewish immigrant eulogized in "Kaddish." While Albatross' adaptation doesn't play down Naomi Ginsberg's erratic behavior and repeated bouts of mental illness, it leaves a gentler overall impression than the magnificent but nakedly blunt memorial written by her son. At the same time, the show emphasizes the role this bright, disturbed woman played in fostering her son's creativity.
The emotional bond between mother and son is evident even though Naomi is portrayed, at various times, by the production's two actresses (Frida Hillfon and Lotta Sjolin) and Allen is portrayed by the two actors (Jakobsson and Bob Hansson). What this technique lacks in consistency it more than compensates for in mood and imagery.
The play begins with three of the actors carrying Hillfon, whose head is covered by a giant bird mask and whose body is encased in a garment that looks like a shredded American flag. She screams with labor pains and gives birth to Naomi.
Screams and bird masks turn out to be recurring motifs in this multi-media work, which also features live music performed on instruments as eclectic as clarinet, drums, bowed saw and a rain barrel. The significance of the screams is obvious in a play about the author of "Howl." The birds have more elusive meanings, although they call to mind the influence of both Blake and Native American culture on Ginsberg's work. Jakobsson also intended the birds to represent the American eagle, and the play's title to refer to Uncle Sam, though these references are less immediately apparent.
The first indication of Naomi's effect on Allen's creativity comes when she gives her young son a set of finger cymbals, puts them on his toes and encourages him to dance. The joy this releases in him, as portrayed by Jakobsson, contrasts with the somber, old-before-his-time attitude he conveys in the next scene, in which, at age 12, he takes his mother to a sanitarium.
The joyful scene with the cymbals also adds poignancy to Naomi's final letter to Allen. He receives it two days after her death, and it prophesies: "The key is in the window." In the context of the play, this enigmatic quote seems to suggest that Naomi is passing the seeds of creativity on to her son.
After Naomi's death, the play moves on to "Howl" and a brief survey of the Beat movement, be-ins, sit-ins and love-ins, for one of which the actors circulate through the audience, handing out incense. This section -- which also uses lyrics from sources including the Fugs and Frank Zappa -- has more historical than emotional resonance. Even so, it's interesting to see how artists from a foreign country interpret one of the more free-ranging periods of American culture. Ginsberg is reunited with the spirit of his dead mother in the end, and the true measure of the play's effectiveness is that their sense of connection carries over into the audience as well. As one of the actors says repeatedly during the love-in, "Wow, man, wow."
"Sam's Tormented Angels"
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through June 11
Call: (410) 752-8558