Playwright Kevin Kling creates a special brand of one-man show out of the raw material of his own life, then tempers it with the insights of famous literary and scientific geniuses. The result is new myth--stories that hit you like fables, tingle your spine, challenge your assumptions and tickle your wit. He has one of the most inventive minds in the theater today--a kind of cross between David Lynch's perversity and Garrison Keillor's homespun humor--and as funny as he always is, he pricks the conscience as well. That said, the world premiere of Kling's The Education of Walter Kaufmann at the Denver Center's Ricketson Theatre is a kick in the head.
The proscenium at the Ricketson is stacked from floor to ceiling with library books. Tall, freestanding mirrors loom over a table on one side of the stage,over a bathtub on the other and over a large red velvet armchair. These props are moved about the stage every time the protagonist unfolds a new chapter in his life, and gradually we realize that every single item on stage carries metaphorical significance.
Sitting in the red chair is Walter Kaufmann (Kling) dressed in white hospital garb. His skin is so pale in the light that he looks ill. Walter is ill--mad as a hatter. But there is method in his madness and, little by little in the swirling mass of information he imparts, the world as he sees it begins to make its own kind of sense.
Walter tells us he believes in predestination and in Einstein's theory of light, with all of that pioneering scientific work's mystical implications. Then he begins a kind of confession of some dark deed, realizes we won't understand, and so begins at the beginning--his early youth back on a Minnesota farm.
Walter relates a complex story about loving and losing a pig to slaughter each year. He recounts smoking with his dad--back during that brief moment when cigarettes were good for you. He tells of his mother's prowess in the kitchen arts, of dining with the laborers during the fall harvest, of the thin-lipped pastor who liked to eat, of his father's death and the selling of the farm, followed by a summer job in a meat-packing plant. Eating meat is a theme that recurs through the story, with increasingly bizarre implications.
College is a new world for Walter--he loves it, it makes him feel smart. He befriends his gay uncle Hugo, works in Hugo's flower shop and learns from him that once you know where you fit in the world you won't be lonely again. And when Walter enters Dr. Steitzer's humanities class at St. Medericus Academy, he does find himself. The professor's convoluted class assignment includes defining the universe or discovering your own private myth--whichever seems easiest. Achieving every "A" student's dream, Walter discovers the meaning of life, the importance of myth and the door to creativity, and in the process becomes more and more attached to Dr. Steitzer and his tasty visions.
Kling plays every character in this production, jumping in and out of the many personas with lightning reflexes that never confuse the viewer because each role is so distinct. Dr. Steitzer is the most flamboyant and endearing character, the pastor the most reprehensible, but each is a fully developed human being with a definite place in the universe.
On stage, Kling moves with the grace of a dancer, his energy burning up time so fast that the evening clips by. He's a fine actor and comedian, but he's an even more exciting playwright, finding order in the strangest coincidences and making you feel it, too. And unlike so many one-man shows, Kling's jazzy riffs come together in a fully integrated play, a fierce yet kindly work of art. Maybe he knows his place in the universe--there's no one else sharing the same dimension.
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