Like a Prayer: The Adaptations Project Takes Allen Ginsberg’s Autobiographical Poetry from the Page to the Stage

The Adaptations Project’s Founding Artist Donnie Mather, as Allen in “Kaddish.”
Photo by Ben Strothmann.
Allen Ginsberg is considered one of the most important figures of the Beat generation.  Originally from Paterson, New Jersey, the poet later moved to New York, a city with which he later became closely associated.  He is best known for writing the epic poem Howl, which remains a classic.  His poem Kaddish, upon which The Adaptations Project (TAP) based their production, was written three years after the death of his mother, Naomi, who suffered an undiagnosed mental illness.  In the Jewish prayer service, the Kaddish, or Mourner’s Kaddish, is often used in funerals and memorials.  Ginsberg’s poem takes elements of the prayer, weaving in themes of death and loss.
In this adaptation of Ginsberg’s tribute to his mother, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of its publication, TAP Founding Artist and actor Donnie Mather brings Kaddish — and the poet himself — to life.  Here, Mather takes on the piece, staging it as a one-man show.  As someone who was not familiar with the source material coming in, watching Mather was interpret Ginsberg’s words was interesting to see.  The piece, which runs a good 80 minutes, is almost completely verbatim, faithful to the text except for a few instances where Mather takes on other roles, mostly as Naomi.  These role-playing sequences, interspersed throughout, showcase Mather’s abilities to play multiple characters.  The performance is set against a minimal setting of three hanging windowsills, upon which visuals are projected.  Background noises and sound effects, as well as lighting changes, also come into play, along with a few props.
Truth be told, my past experience with one-man shows — while limited — haven’t exactly converted me into a fan, just yet.  The only other such show I’ve seen was Chazz Palmintieri‘s A Bronx Tale, which I’d had some qualms about, and Kaddish was no different.  Mainly, I had a problem with the use of sound effects and noises, as well as some of the visuals.  Perhaps it is just a case of personal preference, but my idea of one-man shows had always been of just a single performer under the spotlight, telling his story.  I suppose these expectations were even more so when I saw that Kaddish was based upon a Ginsberg poem — I somehow had expected it to more of an intimate, poetry slam/reading kind of feel.  Of course, this being live theater, it was silly of me to expect it as such, as much as I had tried to come in with an open mind.  Still, I would have like to have seen a simpler take, in terms of the staging.  I feel as if a lot of the extra stuff, such as the sound effects, distracted from really letting Ginsberg’s words sink in.
That said, there were still things I found enjoyable — some of the projections served as comedic relief in some parts, and also helped to augment the lyrical feeling of Mather’s monologue.  Brian H. Scott’s lighting design complemented the performance very well, creating an intimate feel that can only be essential when looking back at Ginsberg’s life and experiences with his mother.  And, of course, Mather’s performance, which kept me mesmerized.  He has such a presence onstage that no matter who he was playing — Allen, Naomi, or his father, Louis — Mather was able to inhabit each person with such distinctive characteristics that it kept me enthralled.

All in all, it was a very interesting interpretation, and a performance that — even for those not familiar with Allen Ginsberg — will leave the theatre having known a little bit about the voice of a generation…and wanting more.

Kaddish ran from September 29th – October 9th, 2011
For more information about this production, click here.
   Click to vote for it in the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.

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