Actors know poets
The World of Carl Sandburg
If more people saw Alliance Repertory Theatre’s The World of Carl Sandburg, more people would buy books of poetry. An art that has long seemed inaccessible to many folks, poetry is perhaps best witnessed performed. Even people schooled in the ways of iambic pentameter can have difficulty grasping rhythm; line breaks, commas, semicolons or the lack thereof are sometimes not enough to sense how a poem should sound when read aloud. Often, the mood and intention of a poem are difficult to follow without the poet there to explain.
Sandburg’s poetry is more approachable than that of many writers. It has the quality of short stories, rich with narrative and full of the suggestion of characters. His often anti-capitalist and labor-related poems address how it is to lead the working class life, and are especially suited to being acted. Who knew?
Putting Sandburg’s works within the context of a play (thanks to playwright Norman Corwin) turns out to be a brilliant idea—if actors can pull it off. The World of Carl Sandburg is a brave undertaking, as it lacks a plot, and it is without steady characters audiences can follow, love and/or hate from beginning to end.
Alliance Rep’s play opens as two men and two women walk on stage in hobo gear. Their rope belts, taped shoes, overalls and shabby hats are an ode to the stint Sandburg spent ridin’ the rails. Three massive charcoal drawings hang from the ceiling, each a portrait of Sandburg at a different age. Director Jacqueline Fisher created the sketches, and she and fellow cast member Derek Evans carry the weight of play that is simply a slew of Sandburg poems separated by brief facts about Sandburg’s life.
Fisher and Evans tend to take on the longer and more theatrically difficult poems. Mark Taxer and Lori Schumacher are less experienced, although they clearly try just as hard. Even though Schumacher often swallowed her lines and held pauses that seemed more forgetful than pensive, she had a few shining moments, particularly when she performed a nonsensical children’s poem that she recited like a lullaby to her imaginary baby: “A monkey of stars climbed up and down …”
Evans and Fisher were compelling as they embodied every type of person from Fisher’s old man and prostitute characters to Evans’ regal portrayal of Abraham Lincoln (two of Sandburg’s more memorable works are the biographies Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years).
Some of the poems were set to the beats of hands clapping and feet stomping, like the jazzy, rap-style poem with the line “be happy, but not too doggone happy.” Some poems were more serene and serious like Sandburg’s famous short poem “Fog,” recited by Evans with confident patience: “The fog comes on little cat feet …” One fun poem was “Arithmetic.” As Schumacher played the role of teacher, the other three actors circled around her pretending to be children defining the term. “Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your head,” Fisher said.
The World of Carl Sandburg must have been more difficult to memorize than most plays. It was a piece that easily could have failed had the actors not made every poem seem like a world within itself. A new theatre company, Alliance Rep shows a lot of promise.