Clapp Brings Robert Frost to Northern Stage
If you know and love the work of Robert Frost, the one-man show at Northern Stage will enchant you. If your memory of Frost's poetry has dimmed, you will delight in the re-introduction, and will be combing your bookshelf (or Googling) to find a copy of The Death of the Hired Man to re-read the next day.
Frost was a rock star of contemporary poetry, winning four Pulitzer Prizes. For those of a certain age, there is the enduring memory of watching him reciting at JFK's inaugural ceremony, the first poet to have the honor. Frost popularized his poetry by "barding around" the United States to college towns to present his work and himself to the public.
As always, and such is the depth of his craft, Gordon Clapp--well-known to Northern Stage audiences--dissolves into his character within minutes of taking the stage in A. M. Dolan’s Robert Frost: This Verse Business. During the play's first half, we see Frost's public persona as one imagines he appeared on tour. He's folksy and informal, hugging a podium from time to time but wandering the stage as well with an older person’s gait. He catches the eye of individual members of the audience, speaking directly to them. He quips in ways that are self-effacing while simultaneously skewering academics and others he considered too lofty when discussing poetry, particularly his own. As charming and authentic as he appears, one suspects that Frost's on stage performances were quite calculated; you can bet that he practiced the timing and delivery of some of those zingers for maximum effect. Or so Clapp’s own perfect timing and delivery would have you believe.
Clapp as Frost at home. A hat tip to wig and hair designer Robert Pickens
The set (by Alexander Woodward) and wardrobe changes (costume designer Lee Viliesis) in the play’s second half signal a different side of Frost, at home in New England, among his fallen leaves and birches. Clapp loses the tightly-wound plaid neck scarf and finds his comfortable shoes. Frost confides about his family life, which had its share of tragedy. The poetry, however, keeps coming.
Frost and his plain, colloquial style (not too plain, though--no free verse allowed) are associated with life in New England. At times this plagued his work, as some thought it too simple, a bit regional, or as he says, grimacing, "agricultural." Critics seem to have changed their minds in more recent times, heralding him as a delver into complex themes and re-branding him a modernist. No matter. Sitting in a theater in White River Junction, listening to Frost/Clapp read Birches, or Mending Wall ("Something there is that doesn't love a wall . . . "), I thought that we in New England, and particularly Vermont where Frost lived, taught and is buried, should lay claim to him without reservation. His landscape is our landscape, his words familiar on our own, occasionally chapped, lips.
Robert Frost: This Verse Business, directed by Gus Kaikkonen, runs until October 28 at the Barrette Center for the Arts, home of Northern Stage in White River Junction VT. Photos by Rob Strong, used by permission).
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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge