“Howl,” a senior project for Raphi Soifer ’04 and Christina Mitropolou ’04, embodies the good and bad of Yale theater. When all the elements come together, they create a stunning vision, a dramatization of Ginsburg’s epic beat poem that sears the audience with its intensity. When the elements fail to mesh, the true beauty of Ginsburg’s words are lost to stylized blocking and poor pronunciation. “Howl” is brilliant in concept and a mixed bag in execution.
Walking into Whitney Theater, I was quickly struck by the number of vintage posters glued to the otherwise bare set. To me, these indicated a perfectly reasonable decision on Soifer’s part to frame Ginsburg with his time period, as opposed to placing “Howl” in an entirely neutral context. Yet these posters, this frame, played no real part in the actual play. The barbed wire painted on the grey walls and the numerous signs instructing the audience to “Keep the Park Clean” made the production seem dated, not evocative. The set and the lighting distracted me from what I considered to be the production’s primary strength, its text. Had the action alluded to the established time period, it might have been more powerful. The technical aspects of the show were good in and of themselves, but as a whole they seemed out of place beside Ginsburg’s words and Soifer’s blocking.
The blocking was my biggest complaint with “Howl.” Soifer’s actors dance around the stage and hide behind the audience, drawing attention this way and that, as if even the director doesn’t know where the audience should look. I found myself turning my head and glancing to my left and right, ignoring the words and losing their meaning. If Soifer intended to focus my attention on Ginsburg’s poetry, his blocking did just the opposite. That said, there were three blocking choices I found incredibly moving. Mitropolou’s speedy dance on top of and slow descent from the white table at the center of the stage were a perfect counterpoint to the pace of the opening poem. Barney Bate, speaking from the balcony, reminded me of some wise god commenting on the laments of his creations. And, in my mind the most stunning sequence in the whole show, Mitropolou’s ode to an absent Carl Sullivan filled me with a powerful sense of pathos.
Christina’s performance was the highlight of the show, and the other actors supported her with great skill. That the pace of the show waxed and waned so well speaks to Soifer’s strong understanding of the material, but often times the actors spoke too quickly to be understood. Soifer had the actors speak together so often that it seemed to have no meaning. I found that when the actors spoke slightly out of unison the effect was far more interesting. Though the acting was strong, I felt that there was little distinction between anyone on stage. Soifer used five people when one or two would have been plenty.
In general, Soifer uses more of everything than is necessary. “Howl” itself was published as a slim volume with few extra bells and whistles. This adaptation suffers from not following that model. In adding element after element, Soifer diffuses the power of each one, eventually leaving him with a play that is less that than the sum of its parts. “Howl” should have placed Ginsburg’s words on a theatrical pedestal, to be subtly enhanced by sparse blocking and well-chosen technical elements. There are a few instances when this occurs, and the effect is extraordinary. During these moments the audience feels the full force of Soifer’s vision and Ginsburg’s endless talent. But there are other, more numerous instances when the play feels over-directed. Had Soifer pulled back slightly, “Howl” would have truly broken free.