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Open: 05/06/10- Close: 05/15/10 Pen Knife
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Ethan Kanfer
Hunter Canning ©2021  David Skeist

Although historically accurate, it’s clear at the outset that PEN KNIFE is not straight bio-drama.  Set designer Jian Jeung transforms the Living Theater’s intimate round space is into a physical manifestation of the Symbolist poetry that obsesses the show’s characters. Anachronistic modern pens, and other weapons, dangle from the ceiling over a stage carpeted with pieces of white writing paper. A world of unwritten poems, of untold possibilities, is an apt metaphor for the restless mind of Paul Verlaine. Rising from this chaos of creativity are two set pieces, a bed and a table festooned with absinthe-- both places where the tortured poet spent much of his time and energy.

When Verlaine, played by David Skeist, first takes the stage, he is naked. So is his young wife Mathilde, played by Melinda Helfrich. As if in a dream, they are surprised to see the audience, and begin dressing as they tell the story of their troubled marriage. From beneath a pile of papers rises young Arthur Rimbaud (also nude), played by Michael Barringer. Provocative, brilliant and seductive, the budding poet attaches himself to Verlaine and moves in with him and Mathilde. The two poets are impassioned with a desire to forge a new literary aesthetic. But Rimbaud’s intoxicating influence is not limited to writing. He and Verlaine become lovers, and play dangerous games that scandalize Parisian society. Rimbaud, manipulative and mischievous, lights a fire in Verlaine that he burns out of control. The older poet grows increasingly volatile, drinking to excess and  physically abusing pregnant Mathilde. Over time, Verlaine’s violence costs him both relationships, but the memory of Arthur lingers and continues to inform his poetry .

Playwright Christopher Richards balances the fantastical with the factual, showing both the beauty and the squalor of lives lived in pursuit of the ultimate aesthetic and erotic ecstasy. Richards also gives equal time to Mathilde, who emerges as neither a victim nor a footnote. She is portrayed here as an earthy, intelligent and sexually vivid individual perpetually ready to challenge both the audience and the overgrown boys who use “genius” as an excuse for irresponsible behavior. Under the direction of Javierantonio González, the three person ensemble displays a rich array of colors, and finds the human core of difficult material that might, in lesser hands, feel coldly esoteric. 

Both the uninitiated and diehard devotees of Rimbaud and Verlaine will find much to celebrate in this fresh and innovative take on their erratic lives and perennially inspiring work. 

Venue:
Living Theatre : 21 Clinton Street