The audience at Cal Rep’s world premiere production of “Love, Bukowski” doesn’t get to go through the front door of the Edison Theater. Instead, there is a detour down an adjacent alley to the rear of the structure, a miasmic walk into rust and concrete and wet garbage and darkness, with various down-and-out denizens spouting poetry, lying in the gutters but looking at the stars. This beginning of the show is completely fitting for its subject, the late poet Charles Bukowski, who seemed to barge into the American literary scene via the back door himself.
Cal Rep artistic director Joanne Gordon conceived this theatrical homage, and her vivid direction of a game cast makes this production a fine introduction to the poet’s work and a heartfelt tribute for his fans.
Bukowski’s artistic reputation has often been simplified by the media as mere slices of Skid Row barroom life, as in the film “Barfly.” Although that aspect is represented here, Gordon also highlights the artist’s less-known gentle and romantic side. The evening is composed of a series of his poems — some played broadly for laughs, a few simply read aloud, and several performed with raw emotional intensity. Danila Korogodsky’s set, a single working toilet surrounded by a square of stage ringed by empty bottles and glass beer mugs, evokes a multiplicity of moods, and Nick Solyom’s lighting is expert, creating an impressive interplay of shadow and substance. Gordon’s versatile staging puts the actors in and around the audience, sometimes literally in the laps of bemused visitors, and turns what could be a static recital into a show buzzing with vitality.
John Short, representing a bedraggled version of the author in T-shirt and underwear, ably conveys the sardonic side of Bukowski’s humor in such pieces as the racetrack lament “I Am Known” and the deflator of academia “On the Hustle.” Gavin Hawk’s noirish delivery (strangely reminiscent of a Charlton Heston imitation) of the surreal shaggy dog story “Table for Two” brings the oddball tale to life with sly comedic style.
Gary Grossman and Richard Holden provide bittersweet counterpoint in the connected poems “Those Girls We Followed Home” and “The Girls We Followed Home,” Grossman cheerfully remembering young objects of desire, and Holden somberly describing the effects of age. Holden is believably grateful in “The Icecream People,” an atypical piece in which Bukowski gives in to the simple pleasures of domesticity and 31 Flavors.
Mark Piatelli offers a series of powerful performances in such tales as “The Elephants of Vietnam” and the moving cat story “History of a Tough Motherfucker.” His acting in “Fly Boy,” a poem about a young child seeking escape from abusive parents, is a heartbreaking cry of despair that Gordon turns into an astonishing piece of theater as the cracking sound of a belt whipped against the floor is accompanied by the sudden appearance of a sky full of stars. In contrast, his delivery of the ode to romantic contentment “The Shower” is a quietly observed expression of joy.