Freshly excavated from the construction mess surrounding Washington’s towering new convention center, the Warehouse Theatre is hosting a brief run this week of “Poet in New York,” a one-man show focused on the life and work of Spanish poet-playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.
The show is actually a production of Philadelphia’s award-winning avant-garde theater troupe the Pig Iron Theatre Company and stars one of its members, Dito van Reigersberg, who impersonates 11 characters in the show, including Lorca and the volatile Salvador Dali.
Pig Iron bills this 65-minute free-form riff as a “biographical fantasia,” and that it is. Part theater piece, part cabaret scene and part mime, “Poet in New York” explores Lorca’s ambivalent encounter with New York City on the eve of the Great Depression, and it is not meant to be a literally accurate portrayal.
Lorca journeyed to the great American city ostensibly to study English. It is equally possible, however, that he also was seeking a more hospitable climate for exploring his insistent homosexuality, which was not exactly a favored lifestyle in pre-Franco Spain.
In any event, he seems to have found much of what he was seeking in the New World. He loved the sensuousness of the Harlem nightclub scene as personified by Harlem blues singer Victoria Spivey, and he related powerfully to the earthy free verse of Walt Whitman - still relatively avant-garde in 1929. Lorca even got a chance to meet contemporary American poet Hart Crane.
But he also found in New York confirmation of his firming socialist beliefs as he witnessed firsthand the collapse of the American economy - the ruin of wealthy capitalists and average citizens alike - and the occasional swan-dive suicides from towering buildings in the financial district and elsewhere. Lorca’s experiences ultimately were recorded in a book of surrealistic poems published after his death. It is this controversial volume that provides the title and the theme for Pig Iron’s current theatrical production.
A quirky show that will not appeal to everybody, “Poet in New York” copped an award at the 2000 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, because that’s the kind of show it is: an intense, impressionistic, personal piece suited best to small audiences of the cognoscenti in an intimate black-box theater like the Warehouse.
The show presupposes a thorough familiarity with the life and times of Lorca. This includes his friendship with the bigger-than-life Dali, his love of Gypsy folklore, his quirks and nervous tics, his fascination with and fear of heights and water, his homosexuality and, ultimately, his leftist politics, which allied him strongly with the Spanish Republicans (not to be confused with supporters of George W. Bush), leading to his eventual brutal murder by allies of Generalissimo Franco.
Mr. Van Reigersberg puts on a bravura performance. Part actor, part clown, part mime, part dancer, he is less interested in Lorca the man than in Lorca the poet, a seething cauldron of hopes, fears and violent emotions. His Lorca is experienced rather than explained, emotionally encountered rather than rationally explored.
The dizzying quality of Lorca’s mental traveling is embodied in the simple set that Mr. Van Reigersberg precariously navigates: the flat rooftop of an old New York apartment or rooming house adorned with one of that city’s famous old water towers, which constantly beckons in the near distance. Lorca constantly peers over the edge of his building, facing and fearing again and again his own eventual oblivion.
This is a show that is breathtakingly well-choreographed, from the effective set to the minimal but cleverly used props to the split-second timing of the complex and critical audio effects. But again, despite the quiet brilliance of the setting, the sounds, the symbols and the acting, there are few entry points here for the uninitiated. Program notes could have helped, but none are provided.
For this reason, some viewers are likely to depart from the Warehouse Theatre thoroughly puzzled. At the same time, college students, intellectuals, closet Trotskyites and aficionados of Spanish poetry and theater will be challenged and inspired, happily adjourning to a local coffeehouse or watering hole for all-night discussions of Lorca, the meaning of poetry, theater and the ultimate significance of life in general.
“Poet in New York” is simply an either/or kind of show. If you’re a fan of Lorca’s, it’s a must-see. If you’re not, consider yourself warned.
WHAT: Dito van Reigersberg in the Pig Iron Theatre Company’s production of “Poet in New York”
WHERE: The Warehouse Theatre, 1021 Seventh St. NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. June 27 to 29, 4 p.m. June 29 (in Spanish)
INFORMATION: 202/783-3933, www.pigiron.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS