Fastened to a Dying Animal

Rated 4.0

California Stage artistic director Ray Tatar takes pride in the literary aspects of his theatrical endeavors, perhaps more than any other director in town. Currently, Tatar’s going for the gold—directing a new one-man show about the greatest of the Irish poets, William Butler Yeats, written and performed by Rick Foster.

The piece is titled Fastened to a Dying Animal, and it’s a 75-minute monologue by the elderly Yeats, who paces about a French hotel room, reflecting and remembering. As a poet, he’s at his pinnacle. But his body’s giving out.

This is a workshop production of a script that Foster doubtless will fine-tune after this run. It’s not a conventional play; there’s hardly any action. Foster (as Yeats) is alone in his room. Yet, the intellectual distance traversed is vast: back into the oral tradition of the ancient Greeks and prehistoric Irish legends; out into Yeats’ preoccupations with mysticism, reincarnation and the spirit world; through the politics of the bloody drive for Irish independence; and (of course) through his longing for Maud Gonne—the fiery revolutionary, feminist and actress. The show also covers Yeats’ reinventing of himself, from his early persona as a dewy-eyed, virginal romantic into his later pose as the irreverent, randy, “wild wicked old man.”

Amid all of this, Foster recites many poems that relate to all of the above, “Easter, 1916,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “Sailing to Byzantium” and “News for the Delphic Oracle” among them. And rightly so; Yeats often referred to his life and times in his work. It’s a remarkable performance on Foster’s part. He moves into the poet’s personality and brings the audience into the verse.

Theatergoers should take a moment to scan a good encyclopedia entry on Yeats before entering the theater, unless they studied Yeats in college as I did. A brief overview beforehand will open up lots of vistas as the play unfolds.