Paper Chairs' Poor Herman

Elizabeth Doss' new play shows the literary lion Melville to be just like one of us

The cast of Poor Herman (PHOTO by Leon Alesi)

This could be someone you know: twentysomething artistic type makes a big splash with his early works and, encouraged by his success, marries and starts a family. But his next works don't do as well. Then he tries something really ambitious – and he's kind of egged on by this fellow artistic type, who's older and more successful and feels like a mentor – and that work tanks. So now the guy's a bit panicky over his career, plus he's over 30 with a couple of kids, and he can feel the debt rising to his shoulders, his neck, his nostrils. So he scraps the work he's been doing and tries something he's sure will be commercial. And not only does that thing not sell, it earns him his worst reviews ever. I mean, it sounds like it could be the story of any number of artists, musicians, or writers in Austin, right?

Well, it turns out that it was also the story of Herman Melville – yeah, the same guy your high school English teacher tried to convince you wrote the greatest American novel of all time. Maybe you didn't like that book about the white whale any more than the literary critics back in 1851 (in which case you may be grateful you weren't also subjected to Melville's sure-to-be-a-hit follow-up, Pierre: or the Ambiguities, a gothic sudser of New York society, decadent artists, and forbidden love of the brother-sister kind), but if you take a peek at Melville's life through the lens of Poor Herman, the latest from the theatrical adventurers in Paper Chairs, you may find yourself feeling a tad more sympathy toward the 19th-century author. It isn't that the play portrays him as such a prince; on the contrary, the egotism, anxiety, and patronizing paternalism he displays make him out to be a real piece of work. But playwright Elizabeth Doss, whose bloodline lets her claim Melville as her great-great-great-grandfather, presents the pressures on him – financial, familial, professional – in ways that feel very familiar, and she establishes enough artistic integrity in his character that the creative risks he takes have a kind of honor in them.

Doss takes her own risks in telling Mel­ville's story. She limits her cast to five actors, all women who, as well as playing various people in poor Herman's world, take turns playing Melville himself, passing among them a beard of multicolored curls that rather resembles a coral reef growing along their jawlines. It creates for the audience a connection not so much to the person of Melville as to an idea of him, a mosaic image formed by the diverse portrayals of these women. Moreover, Doss dramatizes some of Pierre; or the Ambiguities, which comes off about as dreadful as you imagine, though Doss' purpose in including it seems not to mock the work but to reveal the passions and preoccupations roiling in Melville when he wrote it and to show both his art and life as melodrama. Playing this material as that kind of 1800s Yankee telenovela is a bold choice and an inspired one, heightening the emotional stakes for Melville and doing so within a reigning theatrical form of his day. But it calls for a specific presence and precision in the acting that the actors here, game as they are, don't always conjure. Their characterizations are often muted beside the vivid language of Doss' text, the melancholy score performed live by composer Henna Chou, and the stitched-canvas backdrop and bare wooden structure by scenic designer Lisa Laratta, which evoke the sails and decks of Melville's seafaring ships, especially when bathed in the rich radiance of Kate Ducey's lights.

The greatest gamble, though, and the one with the greatest payoff, is Doss' direct and open questioning of our concept of artistic failure. It comes late in the play and in a manner best experienced in the theatre, but in essence it defends the creative misfires of poor Herman – and all artists – as valuable and necessary. They are as much a part of the artist's exploration of his or her creative expression as the successes, and much can be learned from them, even the ones that seem ill-conceived from the start. Her statement of this is the final gesture by which Doss shows this giant of American letters to be our size and every bit as vulnerable as we are today. He was poor Herman, yes, and he could be any one of us.

Poor Herman

The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo
Through May 28
Running time: 2 hr.

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paper chairs, Elizabeth Doss, Lisa Laratta, Herman Melville, Kate Ducey, Henna Chou

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