Thursday, July 19, 2018

Proud, Perplexed Papa: As Hemingway, by Himself in 'Pamplona,' Stacy Keach Provides a Remarkably Ernest Portrait -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by Jim McGrath
directed by Robert Falls
starring Stacy Keach
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 19

It's October 1959, and Ernest Hemingway is holed up in a hotel room in Pamplona, the Spanish city he made world famous 33 years earlier with the publication of his venerated debut novel, The Sun Also Rises.

That book, a loosely autobiographical chronicling of the Lost Generation gallivanting across Europe after World War I, would help establish Hemingway as one of the world's most famous authors.

And, with crisply descriptive and boldly evocative language that would become his trademark, quite likely its best.

Over three decades, Hem would defend this title with the pluck of a prizefighter, or one of his beloved bullfighters. Often rhapsodizing about hunting, fishing and courage amid combat, he made the cerebral exercise of writing a manly sport often celebrated with his holy trinity:

Booze, boats and broads.

Following the renowned A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls came Hemingway's 1952 ode to a persevering fisherman--The Old Man and the Sea--which earned the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was cited as central to his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

That same year, he was nearly killed in a plane crash in Africa, and defied death in yet another the very next day.

His health, and likely his faculties, would deteriorate from injuries suffered in the crashes, but in the summer of 1959, Hem would follow a bullfighter named Antonio for an article commissioned by Life magazine.

And as the one-man play, Pamplona, opens--within a beautiful set by Kevin Depinet under the direction of Robert Falls at Chicago's Goodman Theatre--the great, proud, tough Ernest Hemingway (embodied brilliantly by Stacy Keach) sits at a typewriter in his hotel room.

And is unable to write a damn word.

So the great Hemingway instead talks, about his frailties and flaws, his four wives and lost loves, his dear friends and departed comrades (most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald), his war injuries and the bravado of bullfighters, his days hanging out in Montmartre with Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein--before Hem had become famous--his feelings about Francisco Franco and Fidel Castro, his affinity for booze and his storied books, his dreaded mother who insisted on dressing him like his sister and his dear father who would--like the famed novelist himself, in 1961--end his life with a bullet to the head.

In Jim McGrath's play, on which Keach--long a Hemingway interpreter--collaborated, it's never really clear why the novelist would apparently be orating to an audience as he meanders alone in a hotel room, but without the dramatic conceit, we'd all be sitting in silence for 90 minutes.

Instead we get a first-rate actor giving us a glimpse into the mindset, and the biography, of a famous author many may have left behind in their high school literature classes.

Though I have revisited some of Hem's novels and short stories in recent years, I wouldn't quite call myself an aficionado, but can't really say that Pamplona taught me all that much.

But not only was Keach's depiction a tour de force--all the more remarkable given that his suffering a heart attack on opening night last year curbed the world premiere run at Goodman--but my friend Ken, an avowed Hemingway acolyte, found considerable depth and definition that abetted the familiar biographical terrain.

The show program states that Pamplona takes place on October 11, 1959, so even in knowing about Hemingway's real-life ending, part of the thrill is encountering how McGrath, Keach and Falls broach that eventual reality within the context of the one-act play.

I certainly won't reveal that here, but in citing the three key traits of a bullfighter--"skill, courage and grace in the presence of death"--I think Keach as Hemingway is also shrewdly referencing the writer, even given his self-inflicted demise. 

Less than I had imagined, Pamplona isn't merely a meditation on mental duress or how a brilliant mind might realistically deal with no longer being so.

Accompanied by images projected on the hotel room walls, the monologue is consistently far more colorful than it is dour.

But with Keach brilliantly infusing Ernest Hemingway with both bluster and befuddlement, we are given a keen glimpse into how "Papa" lived life--and wrote--mixing the nimble grace and defiant machismo of a great matator, while simultaneously being provided a poignantly potent sense of perhaps why the sun also set.

After the show at a reception in the Goodman lobby, Ken and I had the thrill of meeting Stacy Keach and telling him how sensational his performance was and how happy we are that he's doing well. He was extremely gracious in return. 

1 comment:

Ken said...

Great review Seth! I wholeheartedly agree with your perceptions. Thanks for the reference. I think Mr. Keach did an admirable job of capturing some of Hemingway's humor. He could be an awfully funny guy sometimes, especially at the bar.