“Song of Myself” is the quintessential American poem read to varying degrees by grade schoolers across the nation. It is a celebration of the self, a celebration of life, and the people and stories that populate it. It is a journey through the human condition and a portrait of the human soul.
In Poe Whitman / Song of Myself: The Whitman Project, Robert Michael Oliver takes you hand in hand on a journey through Whitman’s famous poem while shedding light on the poet’s life and enduring legacy along the way.
Song of Myself: The Whitman Project is actually one part of a two-part series. The other show, Embodying Poe is shown on different nights which I did not see. Bringing “Song of Myself” to life on the stage is ambitious. For those who haven’t read the American epic, it is some 2315 lines long. If that sounds like too much, do not fret because Robert Michael Oliver carries the audience through with a whimsical but profound interpretation of Whitman’s words.
Although it is a one-man show, Oliver does not carry this project alone. It also features photography by Fransisco Rosario, voiceover narration by Elizabeth Bruce, and music by Douglas Fraser. Film, photography, and poetry come together as one, riding alongside Whitman’s poetry. The end result is an astonishing array of images, prose, and sound that make for a strikingly relevant portrait of American life, past and present.
Through Oliver’s performance, the audience is able to experience Walt Whitman as a living, breathing human being. We see what Walt Whitman was truly about and we see why he chose the words that he did. Throughout the performance, Oliver takes on the lives of sailors, hunters, soldiers, and mothers, like a camera catching focus. He has a gift for uttering words, and you can see how profound an effect their sounds and textures have on him. There were times where it felt like he was talking to the audience and sharing his life with us. These were beautiful and poignant moments but they were few. Unfortunately for most of the play, it felt like a man talking in a room to himself.
The Walt Whitman Project / Song of Myself
by Edgar Allan Pow and Walt Whitman
Directed by Robert Michael Oliver and Holly Twyford
Details and tickets
This play is not a museum piece or a memorial to Walt Whitman. This is a piece that is as evocative today as it would have been 160 years ago. With its striking photography, the role of poetry in society becomes evident. That although we can take pictures and videos at any moment, we lose something that only poetry can provide. Playing in front of the projector, literally puts Whitman into the scenes he describes. Fraser’s music delicately punctuates the performance and the film “I Contain Multitudes” directed by Oliver, elevates this piece into a truly unique experience.
Although this is a profound and delightful piece, at times it felt slow and at times it was hard to tell who Robert was talking to, or talking about for that matter. It helps to know “Song of Myself” but not necessary since he adequately provides context to the uninitiated.
In all, this is a piece for anyone who wishes to see the world through Walt Whitman’s eyes. It is a reflection of the American soul and a reflection of both our personal and interpersonal lives.