I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.
But enough about how my closest friends reacted to the election of Donald Trump. Let’s talk about the show.
HOWL: In the Time of Trump is a lot of Allen Ginsberg, with not a hint of Trump. If based on the title you came in expecting some additional political oomph to supplement the quintessential work of the Beat generation, you’ll have to supply it yourself. This isn’t a bad thing, of course: Ginsberg’s forlorn celebration of a desperate counterculture is owed a revival in the face of a reactionary political environment that seeks to remarginalize diversity in service of a mythically homogeneous America that never existed outside of a television set.
In today’s environment, you don’t have to look that hard to see the poem’s relevance some 60 years on.
Robert Michael Oliver is a solid, charismatic performer in a production that features a live guitar accompaniment—for the most part, an unassuming jazzy rhythm, composed and performed by Douglas Fraser—as well simple variations in lighting and backdrop. These add depth while still allowing the poetry to be presented front and center.
HOWL: In the Time of Trump
closes July 23, 2017
Oliver treats each of the three sections with a different rhythm, feel and form, and while I may disagree with some of his stylings, there’s no doubt that his interpretation highlights the stark differences among each of the three parts of Ginsberg’s opus, with each of the four sections (including a Ginsberg footnote) matching the performer’s interpretation of the poem’s meaning. I might have argued for a more rhythmic interpretation of part I, perhaps a little less affect in the anaphora, or a more reverent tone in the footnote, but these are stylistic quibbles in what is overall an impressive performance. Part II is the most enjoyable, and even features a participatory element from the audience that can feel appropriately eerie given the basement venue.
If you’re intending to see this, it would definitely help to read through the poem first, especially if you’ve never done so. While Oliver provides some brief background between performing each section, taking a few minutes to understand what you’re getting yourself into will definitely improve the experience. It will also give you an opportunity to know when you’re about to come across one of those famous phrases you might not have known had their origins in Ginsberg’s frenetic narrative. You can help avoid inconvenient questions, such as “why did he just put on a straitjacket?” or “oh, so the thing about ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’ wasn’t made up by the Cards Against Humanity people?”
But even if you don’t know the poem and don’t feel like reading it, don’t let that deter you. Oliver definitely makes it worth your while to see one of the most famous pieces of modern American literature performed out loud.
HOWL by Allen Ginsberg . Performed by Robert Michael Oliver . Music: Douglas Fraser . On-stage attendant: Elizabeth Bruce . Director: Yitna Firdyiwek . Presented at Capital Fringe 2017 . Reviewed by Dante Atkins.