Review: Theatre Artists Studio Presents POUND

Theatre Artists Studio’s production of POUND, directed by Carol MacLeod, runs through October 10th.

By: Sep. 28, 2021
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Review: Theatre Artists Studio Presents POUND

The easy way to sum up Sean O'Leary's fictionalized account of Ezra Pound's final days of incarceration at Saint Elizabeth's Hospital is to proclaim that words matter. Sure they do, but there's something deeper, more troubling, and provocative in the eponymous play (Theatre Artists Studio's compelling Season opener) that challenges one's ethical sensibilities and tolerance...and, I must say, that leaves one wondering if the playwright fell short of fulfilling his own intentions.

In a 2018 Forbes interview, Leary explained the problem that he wanted to explore and why Pound, anointed by his peers and literary scholars as one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, was the perfect subject: "How do we, can we, should we react when, in old age, we're suddenly confronted with the realization that we've made a mistake so awful that it's irredeemable?

A mistake?

Ezra Pound was always a tough read, not just for students in an English lit class but also for the literati who absorbed themselves in the intellectual intricacies and eclecticism of his poetry. As perplexing as his poetry may have been, the politics of the man were less so. He was an unequivocal fascist and anti-Semite. His predilection, for example, for Mussolini (Il Duce who famously "made the trains run on time") reflected his obsession with precision and order and his disdain for the messiness of democracy. He saw capitalism as the main catalyst of World War I and believed that fascism was the antidote to the "usury system of global capitalist markets." His world view fed his insidious diatribes and radio broadcasts that framed European Jews as the powers behind the corrupt system.

There was no mistake in Pound's intentions, and, for these transgressions, he was charged with treason, pleaded insanity, and was confined to St. Elizabeth's Hospital for thirteen years.

It is here, in the confines of that institution, that the stage is set for a trial of Pound's soul ~ the prosecutor, Ann Polley (Maureen Dias Watson), a psychiatrist with a mission to cure the legendary figure. Her intervention is unorthodox, exceeding the bounds of clinical propriety. Her prescribed cure is to get Pound to see the world as it come to terms with the profound damage that he has done by the power of his unearth the forces that drove him to such break him.

Watson plays to a single chord of unremitting hostility and anger at the subtleties here, no easing into the role. She is a force and a fury from the onset, springing on Pound with ferocity, relentless in challenging his hybris and exposing his hypocrisy. When she discloses that her father was a poet as well, a pursuit foreshortened by the madness of fascist times, it requires little to discern the source of her passionate assault on Pound's sensibilities.

Steve Mastroieni delivers a commanding and stirring performance as Pound, the tempestuous, arrogant, and petulant patient who enjoys special privileges ~ ruling his hospital roost, holding court with visiting sycophants, baiting his nevertheless doting Nurse Priscomb (Patti Davis Suarez) ~ all thanks to the wiles and favors of the hospital's superintendent, Dr. Winfred Olverholser and the committed advocacy of friend and fellow poet Archibald MacLeish (David Heap).

Mastroieni is a force of nature on stage ~ giving range and texture to his role, cascading from one level of emotion to another, and giving dimension to his character.

To the playwright's question of how one (to wit, Pound) should react when confronted with the implications of his behavior ~ that his words killed ~ Mastroieni gives us a man inconsolably broken. So it goes, but, at play's end, are we even then to feel sympathy for the tainted genius?

Sean O'Leary's POUND premiered in October 2004 at The Washington Stage Guild in Washington, DC. and was produced Off-Broadway in 2018 with Christopher Lloyd as Ezra Pound. Theatre Artists Studio's production of the show, directed by Carol MacLeod, runs through October 10th.

Photo credit to Mark Gluckman: L to R ~ Patti Davis Suarez, Steven Mastroieni

Theatre Artists Studio ~ 12406 N. Paradise Village Parkway East, Scottsdale, AZ ~ ~ 602-765-0120