When the house opens for seating, already we see Ezra Pound (David S. Klein) onstage because he is, after all, incarcerated. Where else would he be?
As he practices sumi painting, we also hear his words and the words of Elizabeth Bishop (Lisa Keeton) in ghostly audio. Bishop is the only other character in this play – “The Man in the Newspaper Hat” – written by Hayley Heaton and directed by Katrin Hilbe, and the show portrays her visits to Pound while he was held from 1945 to 1958 in St. Elizabeths, a federal mental hospital in Washington, D.C. The pause between Bishop’s knock on Pound’s door and the moment he opens it is electric.
This script consists of imagined conversations, so this is not verbatim theater. It is, instead, a fictionalized portrayal of how Bishop’s poem “Visits to St. Elizabeths” came into being.
You can see “The Man in the Newspaper Hat” at Odd Duck Studio on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, 1214 10th Ave., at 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays, through Dec. 17.
Like the poem, the play starts out simply and then builds in intensity. Klein nails his character, coming off as cantankerous, brilliant and maniacal. Was Pound really insane, or was it all an act to avoid a lifetime of imprisonment for treason? The script gives the audience both sides of the coin to consider. You see his ravings about Jews, and you hear his thoughts about poetry.
Writers who see this show might be a little envious of a man who seemingly had all the time in the world to write without distraction. History shows that it wasn’t Pound who wanted his release as much as it was others, including Bishop, who fought for it. Many poets, including W.S. Merwin, also visited Pound while he was at St. Elizabeths.
Speaking of St. Elizabeths, one of the most interesting things about this production is the stage set-up. Almost everything in Pound’s room is white, and the outside world, dressed in green and brown tones, surrounds it in a U-shape, further emphasizing Pound’s encapsulation. It was an inventive way to stage this play in its black box setting.
It is a little disappointing that, although Keeton does a fine job of her portrayal of the strong-willed Bishop, her character wasn’t as fully fleshed out as Klein’s. A little bit of research reveals that Bishop’s mother was committed to a mental institution when Elizabeth was only five years old, yet for the most part, Bishop merely reacts to Pound, and neither poet shares any part of their private lives with the other. They do discuss poetry though – “Poems are more than just paper,” says Pound – and after each visit, we see Bishop at her writing table processing their encounters, considering concepts and themes like decadence and the passage of time. As things progress, she seeks help from a bottle of Canadian whiskey, giving us a hint at Bishop’s real-life alcoholism.
In other words, this is a play that could be so much more, but isn’t. Nevertheless, the marriage of poetry and theater is always a worthy reason to check it out anyway. “The Man in the Newspaper Hat” is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of America’s most interesting poets and a unique vehicle of introduction to Bishop’s work.