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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Pound of Flesh

My boy, if you play by the rules, you place yourself at the mercy of a cold, cruel and indifferent universe.--- Ezra Pound

It may be deliberate irony that's inspired playwright/director Michael Peter Bolus to borrow the title of his play about Ezra Pound from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Pound even subverts quotes from it. "If you're pricked, do you not bleed? If you're tickled, do you not laugh? If you're poisoned, do you not die?" The famous anti-Semitic poet who was indicted for treason for his pro-Axis broadcasts delivered over Radio Rome during World War II escaped the executioner when he was committed to St.Elizabeth's Hospital, a mental institution, where he spent 12 years.

Pound's poems were seminal to the spare imagist work of Yeats, Joyce, Frost, Hemingway and Eliot. The Bollingen-Library of Congress awarded him the prize for poetic achievement for "The Pisan Cantos"in 1948 and, after repeated appeals from prominent writers, he was released from the hospital in 1958 and returned to Italy where he died in Venice in 1972.

Bolus sets his 90-minute play in a US Army prison in northern Italy where Pound is kept under guard in 1945. His character is revealed in dialogues with his young guard, Private Cooper who has a Jewish friend in the motor pool who knows Pound's work well, and praises freedom and democracy.

As well as his anti-Semitic rant, Pound vents on democracy in the familiar argument. " A government at the mercy of the uneducated, uninspired and unenlightened. A government which insists that even those who are unqualified may affect public policy. A form of government so easily subverted that ultimately the treacherous and deceitful will have their way." Pound tries to convince Cooper by turning his own military hierarchy against him, reminding him that all the troops must follow one general.

In a highly-charged charismatic performance, Joel Polis displays the egotism that Pound justifies as genius. His crisp cultivated diction and the graceful gestures of a dancer heighten the characterization of a man from Idaho who has created himself. David Mauer bravely holds his own as the fresh-faced young soldier from Dearborn, Michigan.

Private Cooper holds his own, too. He becomes as tired of Pound's patronizing "My boy" as we do and is gleefully delighted when he gets Pound to confess he's from Idaho. He enjoys the grammar and poetry lessons Pound enjoys giving him and almost gets a standing ovation when he can correct Pound's grammatical slip. He even writes a poem himself which he has the temerity to ask Pound to correct. Not surprisingly, what he gets is Simon Cowell on American Idol. Hans Pfleiderer has designed an ominous set where the white tubes outlining the ceiling and small cube-shaped tables reflect the confines of Pound's cell. Between the scenes Erin Noble in recorded voice-over recites lines increasing in length from Elizabeth Bishop's poem " Visits to St. Elizabeth." The effect is musical, emphasizing that, whatever else you hear, this is a play about a man whose purpose is poetry.

Bolus, whose dramatic direction hits every beat, succeeds brilliantly in dramatizing the key issues in Pound's life, slashing them with humor and in creating two believable characters. Without knowing Pound's poetry, which has never soared into the universal consciousness as he predicted, it's impossible to empathize with him. Those who read his verse find it worthwhile but his role, historically, is that of "" a leader of perhaps the most revolutionary movement in twentieth-century literature."

Playwright/Director: Michael Peter Bolus
Cast: Joel Polis (Ezra Pound), David Mauer (Private Cooper), Erin Noble (Female Voice)
Set &Lighting Design: Hans Pfleiderer
Costume Design: Marcy Froehlich
Sound Design: Sue Brandt
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: April 29-June 25, 2006
Where: The Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, Reservations: (310) 477-2055.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on May 26.
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