The culture surrounding the shows put on by Revolving Door Productions at its Tribune Theatre home embraces the sensibility of rebel poets. Spoken poetry often slips its way onto the Tribune stage, and the style is right in line with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, and definitely not James Merrill or W.S. Merwin.
It makes sense, then, that Revolving Door would get around to William Blake, the godfather of rebel poets. Writer-director Joel Beers imagines a life for Blake in his new play, "Apocalypse When?" that doesn't even presume to be close to biography. Blake permits that kind of freedom.
Whether we come closer to Blake, or his essence, by the end of the play is another matter. Because Bradley A. Whitfield comes across as a fairly opaque Blake--except when he's pushed in an intellectual debate--and the characters around him are absolutely clear types, the play leaves us in a fog. It also comes close to reducing Blake to merely a rebel against the Anglican Church of the late 18th century, when he was so much more.
At the same time, this period piece is a striking artistic shift for Beers and company, whose work usually takes place in the grunge present.
The usual looseness of this group's shows is replaced here by a fairly rigorous dramatic structure. Even experimental touches (the upper-class characters in modern dress, the working-class in period garb) are on the conservative side.
Showing Blake at his writing table, Beers concocts a tale of what may be going on in Blake's mind. Except for a nicely schizoid, portentous prelude, this notoriously hyper-imaginative mind takes us to a surprisingly recognizable, pre-Victorian England.
The poet is working for haughty publisher Lord Hayley (Nicholas Boicourt Jr.), who dominates everyone around him including the mousy maid, Joanna (Darri Kristin).
Hayley's grand project is publishing a new edition of the Bible, so he is in tight with puritanical Deacon Sumner (Brian Madigan), who quickly finds himself and friend Malthus (Steve Spehar) clashing with the obviously heretical Blake. In and out of this action pops the odd Ned Ludd (Jennifer Bishton), later infamous for sabotaging industrial machinery.
Beers' drama thus veers between domestic conversation and polemical discourses, which he finesses much better than his actors are able to. Blake's argument that man's fall is more psychic than anything to do with Genesis made him one of the first modern artists, and though Beers sums up Blake's thinking, it never thrills us the way it should.
Whitfield doesn't help, since he falls into the trap of depicting the easiest cliches of the tortured, frustrated artist, without very much emotional dimension.
Act 2 centers on the Bible publishing effort and Joanna's descent into religious madness as she prophesies the coming apocalypse. Hayley's attempt to cash in on Joanna's celebrity tragically backfires, but all Blake can do is sweat away in the print shop and witness events.
What Beers has here is a darkly ironic, antireligious tale in which Blake is reduced to the sidelines. Oddly, Blake's own life included an actual event (in which he fought with a soldier and was arrested and tried for sedition) that deeply inspired his most radical poetry, such as "Jerusalem."
There, Blake was the central dramatic actor; here, it's Joanna's play, and Blake is along for the ride. It's fair to ask what he's even doing here.
The problem is Beers' choices, not his overall strategy. Re-imagining history is as high a calling as any playwright can aspire to, and "Apocalypse When?" is a good first step in that direction.
The actors, on the other hand, have a long way to go. Most feel very uncomfortable in period behavior (if not dress), especially Boicourt, Deborah Violet Germinaro as Hayley's wife and a ridiculously over-the-top Spehar.
Kristin knows that it is her play and emphasizes Joanna's terrible vulnerability, even if she can't handle the madness scenes. Only Bishton and Madigan display a keen sense of humor under the surface and take over every scene they're in.
The multiplatformed set by Christopher Michael Egger is relentlessly black and not very 18th century, but Jim Book's lights throw in some interesting surprises.
"Apocalypse When?", Tribune Theatre, 116 1/2 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton. Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends March 10. $5-$7. (714) 525-3403. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Bradley A. Whitfield: William Blake
Darri Kristin: Joanna Southcott
Nicholas Boicourt Jr: .Lord Hayley
Brian Madigan: Deacon Sumner
Steve Spehar/Michael Miller CQ: Malthus
Jennifer Bishton: Ned Ludd
Deborah Violet Germinaro: Lady Essa
Erin McReynolds: Beggar/Paper Person/Midwife
A Revolving Door production of Joel Beers' play. Directed by Beers. Set: Christopher Michael Egger. Lights: Jim Book. Sound: Chris Dalu. Costumes: Shannon McDuff.