nytheatre.com review by Todd Carlstrom
January 20, 2007
San Francisco playwright and performer John O'Keefe clearly trusts simplicity. His latest solo show, Two Songs, has only two stools, a music stand, and a metronome as its entire set. His costume? Utter drab neutrality—a dark T-shirt and black pants. Lights? They were on. Sometimes, there's no urgency to distract an audience with flashy stage elements if you're an engaging, masterful performer. You just know to trust yourself with the material.
Two Songs consists of two wholly separate dramatic pieces: O'Keefe's own "Sunshine's A Glorious Bird" (originally written in 1978) and his adaptation of Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself." Thematically, and lyrically, they cover quite dissimilar ground, with the former being a rumination on mortality, the latter a celebration of individual potential. 123 years separates the two poems' compositions, but it is Whitman's that seems fresher, perhaps because O'Keefe is world-premiering "Song of Myself" in this show. Certainly, the best moments of both demonstrate a love for American language that makes for absolutely spellbinding theatre.
"Sunshine" opens the show, immediately establishing its author's playful side. It takes O'Keefe countless stop-starts to get through a sentence about how many years he has left to dance (the number keeps changing); meanwhile, the ticking metronome keeps constant rhythm, reminding audience members of the uncertainty of their own countdown of time. It would perhaps seem morbid if O'Keefe weren't having so much devilish fun. His character's feelings about mortality are never spoken outright, but his moods turn as if on schizoid hinges—he'll shift from manic laughter to heartfelt tears midsentence. Sometimes he'll repeat words over and over ("Curtains curtains curtains curtains blue curtains curtains blue..."), as if waiting for the next tributary in the stream-of-consciousness to lead him out of his rut. He takes too much pleasure in exploring the linguistic terrain around him to settle into any groove for long.
The one unfortunate aspect of "Sunshine" is that the ambitious, remarkable language is also impossible to memorize. As a result, O'Keefe cannot always directly engage the audience because he remains tied to the music stand. His performance plateaus and begins to lose its novelty about eight minutes in. Fortunately, it is by far the shorter of the two pieces, ending not long thereafter.
Put simply, "Song of Myself" is a poetic and dramatic tour de force. The energy and force of will with which O'Keefe drives the narrative of the poem is a rare joy to witness. It is akin to watching a well-delivered Shakespearean monologue, where every gesture is simple and exactly necessary. Freed of the music stand, O'Keefe can roam where he wishes, and uses the audience to full effect—alternately as witnesses to his shamanic rites, as co-conspirators, and as sounding boards for his occasional innuendoes. He doesn't so much act or perform the poem as celebrate it, and does so with a broad emotional palette and great vocal command.
Perhaps Two Songs isn't for those who strictly prefer narrative theatre. If you are the least disposed to do so, "Song for Myself" merits overcoming such a bias.