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Love, Bukowski

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To get inside the theatre, we walk down a filthy alley, step around trash cans and over drunks, push our way past eager prostitutes, then enter the back of the building and find our seat in the dark. A white toilet sits smack dab in the middle of Danila Korogodsky's symbolic black set. On the toilet under a spotlight sits a sloppy drunk swilling beer. We have entered the gritty, take-no-prisoners world of poet Charles Bukowski--an angry place full of foul words, available women, and nonstop booze. That's dramatic presentation.

For the next 95 minutes, a drop-dead ensemble of Cal Rep actors explores the gut-wrenching life of "L.A.'s notorious dirty old man" in one of the most powerful small theatre productions I've seen this year. Directed with passion by Joanne Gordon, this visceral journey unfolds as a pastiche of guttural prose, bawdy poetry, philosophical provocation, and shocking imagery, all set brilliantly--and unexpectedly--against Mark Abel's sound design of glorious classical music.

The 10 superb actors are constantly onstage as they rotate through various colorful characters under Nick Solyom's dramatic lighting. John Short, Mark Piatelli, and Richard Holden are breathtaking in their portrayals of Bukowski at different outrageous times in his life. Marjo-Riikka Malela is a knockout as his angry "I've-had-it" wife and his dangerous Garboesque mistress. Shaunte Caraballo and Kree Fieldsa portray a series of sensual women he bedded; Gavin Hawk, Sarah Goldblatt, Gary Grossman, and Mark Frankos fill in contemporary archetypes who are alternately comic, tragic, or frightening.

In the end, under Bukowski's crude and vulgar exterior, we discover an ardent lover of life who was constantly at war with all the sludge and desecration that filled his world. Like the Beats before him, Bukowski's poetry was a defiant cry of protest that he shouted at the top of his lungs until the day he died.

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