BWW Reviews: 'Song of Myself: The WHITMAN Project' Graces the Capital Fringe
Perhaps it's been a while since you pulled down your ratty, dog-eared copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass off the shelf. Perhaps the last time you heard Whitman's poetry was when you watched Dead Poets' Society, with Robin Williams teaching everyone to shout "Captain, Oh My Captain" (completely out of context, since it's the opening line of a eulogy for Abraham Lincoln).
The passage of time and the Hollywood treatment have dulled the sharp edge, the reckless lawlessness of Whitman's work. So it's a real pleasure to see the man resurrected and to have his words live and breathe onstage.
As embodied by the engaging Robert Michael Oliver-heavily bearded for the occasion-Sanctuary Theatre revives Whitman in all his messy glory, bringing us his passion, sensuality, sensitivity and eroticism. Yeah, I know-it's kinda hard to imagine a guy who looks like he came out of Santaland, relishing the kinds of encounters that (until recently) could get you arrested in most states. But he was dangerous in his own day, and as Oliver reminds us so richly here, he will remain a scandalous figure on the American scene for as long as there is an America.
Whitman published his first edition of "Leaves of Grass" when the Transcendentalist movement had reached its height, and American writers were protesting against the impersonal nature of early industrialization. But being an urban man his vision went well beyond Henry David Thoreau's "Walden Hut"; he dove head-first into the vast seas of humanity that surrounded him in our urban centers and identified personally with everyone he met. There is also a special connection between Whitman and the Washington area, since he spent many years here (even poets need day jobs, it seems).
Oliver, with the help of his co-director Holly Twyford (a name that should ring a bell or two), has created a fascinating evening that weaves together slides, original music by Matt Miller, John McGrath and Doug Fraser, and a truly wonderful film in which a beautiful kaleidoscope of Washington writers, artists and Whitman fans of all ages take turns reciting his immortal verse.
Oliver occupies the stage amiably, and his recitation of Whitman's great poem is always animated, intense, and personal. Because Whitman wrote more in a stream-of-consciousness form, constantly shifting his gaze from one meadow or street corner to the next, it can be difficult to manage both the meaning and the passion of his words in one fell swoop; Oliver has the vocal chops, however, to make everything vital and essential listening.
It's high time to re-engage, and awaken the Whitman in all of us; after a fitful slumber he's more than ready to take the streets again.
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Whitman runs through July 26 as part of the Fringe Festival at CAOS on F, 923 F Street NW, Washington DC. For performance schedule see: https://www.capitalfringe.org/ .
NOTE: Performances are 7/13 at Noon, 7/20 at 7:15 PM, 7/23 at 7 PM and 4/26 at 4 PM.
For visit the Sanctuary site at: https://www.capitalfringe.org/festival-2014/shows/407-song-of-myself-the-whitman-project