The Haunted Life - Merrimack Repertory Theatre
The Haunted Life – Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
The Haunted Life is presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Written by Sean Daniels. Based on the book by Jack Kerouac. Directed by Sean Daniels and christopher oscar pena. Scenic design: James J. Fenton. Costume Design: Sarita Fellows. Lighting design: Brian J. Lilienthal. Sound Design: David Remedios.
The crime novelist Elmore Leonard once published his ten rules for writing fiction which he said could be summed up with the sentiment, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” The decree worked fine for Mr. Leonard, whose sparse action-driven style gave his novels a pop of energy, but I’d argue that sometimes the power of a novel can hinge on when the writer indulges in the bits that sound like writing. Case in point, Jack Kerouac. If you’ve never had the joy of making your way through his best-remembered book, On the Road, I’d encourage you to go ahead and take the plunge. It took me a few attempts before I was able to properly sync up with Kerouac’s wavelength, but when I finally managed to crack that nut, it paid dividends. Kerouac’s prose vibrates with a poetic energy seemingly driven by an obsessive need to capture something that constantly eludes his grasp. It’s the thrill of being alive. Of being in the moment. Just as it seems like he’s nailed it, the image slips away. The language works itself up into a frenzy before finally bursting forth with some of the most achingly beautiful prose you’ve ever heard, at once hypnotic and intoxicating. Or at least, it is for the reader of the novels.
The Haunted Life, now being presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, is a stage adaption of one of Kerouac’s “lost” novels (the manuscript wasn’t published until 2014, some forty-five years after the author’s death). It tells the story of Peter Martin (Raviv Ullman), a young man (and Kerouac stand-in) living in Lowell in the years preceding World War Two with his mother and father, Vivienne and Joe (Tina Fabrique and Joel Colodner). At the time we meet him, his older brother has already joined the armed forces. Peter sees himself as a writer (a poet, actually), and will talk into the early hours of the morning with his friends about their ideas, about how they’ve got to get out of town, about how there’s gotta be something more out there. There’s something familiar about this character, the young man who doesn’t know what he wants (not really, anyway) he just knows it’s not what’s in front of him. We’ll follow him as he signs up with the merchant marines, falls in with the New York bohemian scene and make peace with his father, all on the path towards him becoming a writer.
The play is a rather curious case because, for better or worse, the script by Sean Daniels preserves a lot of Kerouac’s original language. There’s poetry in those lines as beautiful as you’d expect from Kerouac. The problem is that what works in a novel doesn’t necessarily work on stage and it doesn’t feel as though the source material has been properly reformatted to work in a theatrical context. What makes Kerouac exciting is the way he’s able to improvise with language the way a jazz musician will improvise with their instrument, but The Haunted Life never finds a dialogue equivalent for this kind of energy. Too often in the show, we’re treated to actors reading out large chunks prose that will describe Lowell at night or New York City or a walk that Peter takes. Sure it’s beautiful, but it’s also a bit like hearing a description of a meal that you’ll never eat (or even see). Eventually you have to ask yourself: what’s the point? The prose works on the page because that’s the only tool that a novelist has to employ to paint a picture, but theater is at least as much a visual medium as it is an aural one. The end result here is me sitting in my chair wishing that I could actually see what the characters were spending so much time describing. Instead, the overpowering image is designer James J. Fenton’s set, made up hundreds of window frames arranged like a bed of mussels on the beach that stretch from floor to ceiling. It’s pretty to look at and lighting designer Brian J. Lilienthal is able to do a few interesting things with it, but the stage image is so uniformly busy that it kind of swallows up the actors on stage.
The work also suffers from having a rather bland protagonist. Despite the best efforts of actor Raviv Ullman, there just isn’t that much to the character Peter Martin for the audience to hook into. We spend the entire play being told that he’s a writer, that he’s gotta be a writer, that he has it in him to be a writer, but we never really see him do any writing. Granted, sitting at a desk with a notebook isn’t the most dramatic way to spend stage time, but if the character is the “mad genius” that we keep getting told that he is, shouldn’t it be made clear that he has some semblance of talent? I can understand that’s part of his character arc, but we never see him produce anything that connects with anyone, just a lot of hot air about big ideas. So why should I care whether or not he fulfills some destiny to be a writer? There’s a moment early in the play when Peter remarks that those who can’t write become critics and the kicker is that at this point in the review I’ve done more writing than he does in the whole play.
Directors Daniels and christopher oscar pena cast the show with an eye towards diversity and it’s a decision that I think works really well for the production. This is a play that looks to be about America. The characters aim to be mythic, not just people but recognizable icons like Mother’s homemade cookies. Given that, why shouldn’t the casting reflect the diversity of the country? And I think that there’s the potential for some good performances here that unfortunately get buried under the text. At moments, Vichet Chum, Joel Colodner or Tina Fabrique will break out and bring some energy to the proceedings but we don’t get enough of it. Mostly, you get the feeling that they’re all just trying to get through the language rather than savor it. There’s so much emotion in Kerouac’s language that perhaps has the potential to work in a theater space. But I don’t think The Haunted Life finds a way to properly tap into that potential.
The Haunted Life is presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre March 20-April 14, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.mrt.org