Playwright Michael Bolus may have bitten off more than he, or anyone else, could chew when he chose to write a biographical play about Ezra Pound, the American-born enigma who, among his many other contradictions was both the 20th century’s most influential poet and charged with high treason for broadcasting pro-fascist and anti-Semitic messages over Italian radio during WWII. Genius or traitor? Eminently sane or insane? Pound defies pigeonholing, and though Bolus’ “Pound of Flesh” does begin to suggest what an utterly egotistical, insulting, verbally abusive and abrasive man Pound must have been, it includes almost no background information to help supply the flesh of his play’s title. It’s even questionable whether Bolus has actually written a play; his script is more a torrent of words, albeit often fascinating ones, that have yet to be truly dramatized.
“Pound of Flesh” is set in 1945 in a U.S. Army prison camp’s medical unit in Pisa, Italy, where Pound (Patrick Husted) was held after his arrest and awaited assessment of his mental health before being brought back to the U.S. It’s basically a two-character work that pits Pound’s sophistication against the gauche naivete of young Private Cooper (Jonathan M. Woodward), his guard. A third character is the figure of a ghostly woman (Kate Maguire) who apparently epitomizes Pound’s “immortal song.” She wanders around the periphery of the play quoting ever-lengthening excerpts from a Pound poem that refers to “the tragic man that lies in the house of bedlam.” Her presence distracts from rather than adds to the play.
While in the Pisa prison, Pound wrote part of his landmark poetic sequence “The Pisan Cantos.” He also, while still referring to him as “boy” and a moron, teaches Private Cooper, whose preferred reading is comic books, the rules of poetry. Along the way, actor Woodward also gets to impersonate Virgil, in amplified Latin, as well as, in amplified French, the interrogator of Pierre Laval, the French politician who was executed for treason in 1945. Throughout, Husted’s Pound gets to indulge in what are really monologues, deluges of words, sometimes in French, that invoke Plato, Augustine, Horace, Erasmus, Dante, Shakespeare, et al., and embrace his anti-Semitism and firm belief that democracy is imbecilic and that all men are not born equal. He even gets to rehearse, or deliver, a Nobel Prize acceptance speech. We do get the Pound in the Pisa prison; what we don’t get is virtually anything about the 60 years that led him to his fate since he was born in Idaho in 1885. What of his education, his years living in England, France and Italy, his wife and mistress?
Bolus’ Pound remains not only unfleshed but also too sanely logical to ever suggest that he might be considered mad and actually incarcerated in an American asylum for 13 years after his return from Pisa. It is, nevertheless, precisely the sort of ambitious play the Berkshire Theater Festival second stage should be nurturing, and it’s to be hoped that playwright Bolus will return to it and rework it into more of an actual play with a more multidimensional protagonist.
The BTF production, played out in a square sandbox set, is good enough to encourage him to continue work on his script. Neither Husted nor the play try to make Pound any more likable than he probably was, and Woodward’s clean-cut middle-American air is just right for Private Cooper. As for Peter Wallace’s direction, it sometimes draws attention to itself too obviously with theatrical gimmickry.