Kesh Baggan, Scott Barker, Lachrisha Brown, Tjasa Ferme, Ali Khan, Nicole K., Joel Mercedes, Joyce Miller, Dillon Porter
Drawing from Walt Whitman’s 1855 book of poetry by the same name, director Jeremy Bloom’s performance art-inspired theatre piece entitled Leaves of Grass, now playing off-off-Broadway at The Cell in Chelsea, serves to highlight the beauty of Whitman’s original text while introducing alternately fascinating and puzzling visual elements into the mix.
Featuring a cast of nine actors, who recite excerpts from Whitman’s text, including bits from I Sing the Body Electric, Song of Myself, and Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, Bloom’s creation is less a lucid work of theatre than a tone poem, staged with staggering attention to choreographic detail without ever really acquiring a tangible form.
The troupe of actors inhabit a space between two sections of audience members, entering and exiting by way of a staircase. Most of the time they’re on-stage, they’re entirely nude, Bloom’s nod to Whitman’s love of the human form, which the poet extols repeatedly throughout the poems in Leaves of Grass.
It’s not the on-stage nudity that distracts from the overall quality of the performance however. Rather, it’s the meandering quality of the direction, which ultimately renders all of the actors’ rather accomplished poeticizing somehow less potent due to the lack of focus throughout.
Like the poem itself, which is in no way narrative, the theatrical version features no characters or plot. Shifts in mood provide the only tonal shifts throughout, which leaves an audience wanting something more to grab onto.
As a a result, Leaves of Grass functions primarily as an interpretive reading of the text, wherein chroreographed movement is meant to encompass more dramatic weight than it ultimately does. If Bloom intends anything by the wishy-washy movement he assigns his actors (waving arms, arranged patterns, and vacant stares), something has been lost in the translation of the piece from its roots in the rehearsal hall to the performance space itself.
Throughout the production there’s a thrill in listening to Whitman’s words, though simultaneous projections of the text are largely unnecessary. No matter how Bloom has chosen to piece together his theatrical version, Whitman’s original text is still worth listening to again with fresh ears. The goal of the evening – to celebrate the body by celebrating one of the most body-centric poets in history – is a noble one, and it’s one that partially succeeds. As a piece of performance art, Bloom’s rather messy piece is a moderate success. As a dramatic text, however, it leaves much to be desired.