Sitting in the Vancity Culture Lab waiting for Underbelly to begin, I felt a sense of apprehension as I ruminated that I was going to write about some of the greatest writers of the 20th century. I felt unprepared. But sometimes coming in as a "blank page" is the best way for a writer to get started, so I decided I was in. In hindsight, I am sure this was meant to be.
Jayson McDonald, the London, Ontario-based musician behind Underbelly
The opening scene is mesmerizing in its minimalism. Total darkness, an oppressive discordant noise that ever so gently retreats behind a sweet sense-dulling tonic – and that voice. Writer and musician Jayson McDonald's resonant baritone is instantly magnetic. Perhaps it was the seat I was in, or the acoustics of the room, but voice seems to come from a spot about ten feet off the ground. When the lights do come on, your eyes adjust to the only reality you will experience for the next hour or so, the dark and twisted ramblings of William S. Burroughs and his contemporaries of the Beat generation.
"While waiting for the medication to surprise me..." Probably the only suitable introduction to the life altered that pervades this performance, these are the first words you hear after lights up. A long uncomfortable silence, during which Willy (Burroughs) pops a great many pills as he surveys his audience, precedes the opening rant. It is at once full of humor and profound thought.
McDonald floats seamlessly between the pill-addled Burroughs, the traumatized Kerouac, the verbose Ginsberg, as well as a medley of unsavoury characters encountered in their alternate reality, Tangent. Tangent is a vivid place, illustrated by the excellent direction of Jeff Culbert and narrated by the three wayward travellers as they search for their poison. The lights and sound are just enough to persuade you to suspend your disbelief. The green scene in the jungle is particularly tactile. This is an experience like no other.
If nothing else, the sheer volume of words will impress you. It is a really well-written piece, and McDonald could do it in his sleep. It's witty, sarcastic, pithy, light, dark, sideways, and downside up. Never is it boring. This is theatre in its most pure form, and McDonald is a pro. To capture the full attention of any room is no easy feat, and this production accomplishes that handily.
It's worth seeing more than once. Underbelly is a fitting homage to three of the most influential writers of post-war America, and really of the modern generation. References to the nuclear age, the all-powerful Press, and man's search for meaning are all so relevant today, even if they are presented in a vernacular from sixty years ago. It is both a look back and a reach forward.
For the uninitiated, several of the finer literary references may be lost, but this refresher on classic American literature, I need to see it again. And maybe that's the point.
Underbelly runs March 18 through 30 with matinee shows on the 23 and 30 at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (Vancity Culture Lab).
Photos courtesy of James Travis