Pound Of Flesh

Review by Willard Manus

Can a vile, nasty human being also be a great artist? That's the question that's asked (and answered) in POUND OF FLESH, written and directed by Michael Peter Bolus, a play in its West Coast premiere at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.

Bolus' two-character drama focuses on the poet Ezra Pound, an American who lived the expatriate life in England and Europe in the 1020s and 30s, writing such acclaimed works as The Cantos, editing The Little Review, befriending the likes of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot (whose The Wasteland he helped edit).

Pound was also arrogant, egotistical and chauvinistic, qualities that led him to become involved in Fascist politics; during WW II he lived in Rome and made broadcasts denouncing the Allies, Jews, Negroes and all notions of democracy and freedom. When the war ended he was arrested and locked up in an army prison in Italy, awaiting trial on charges of treason.

POUND OF FLESH is set in the poet's cell. Pound (Joel Polis) is guarded by a naive young American private (David Mauer), and the confrontation scenes between these two opposite characters comprise the play. Pound, the self-styled genius (he rates himself second only to Virgil), lashes into the unschooled but decent young soldier, attacking him for his naivete and shallowness. The private, in return, wonders how Pound could have become so full of hate and venom, such a monster.

Pound often rants and raves during the course of Bolus' 96-minute drama, spitting out his contempt for much of the human race and its values, but it is to the playwright's credit that we are also able to see the man's good qualities--the buried idealism and generosity. Judiciously selected excerpts from Pound's poetry (read movingly in voice over by Erin Noble) help remind us of his sizable artistic gifts.

The play's big weakness, though, is that the private is an unequal adversary to Pound, unable to marshall the intellect to rebut the poet's grandiloquent tirades, or to probe his character, discover what has made him such a monster.

What helps POUND OF FLESH work as well as it does is the remarkable acting by Polis and Mauer, each of whom handles his role seamlessly and powerfully. Their strong, assured performances will surely result in end-of-year prizes for them.

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. Call 310-477-2055 or visit odysseytheatre.com