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Poet As Martyr, Madmen, Musicians

January 11, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

Hungarian martyrs, demented writers and black musicians of the '50s are some of the characters coming to life this week as the local theater scene gets off to a rolling start in 1987.

Opening Saturday at the Zephyr is "Hannah Senesh," written and directed by David Schecter. The one-woman show traces the life of the Budapest-born poet who emigrated to Palestine in 1939 at age 18, later joining a British military unit as a paratrooper in Hungary, where she was eventually captured, imprisoned, tortured, found guilty and executed.

"Hannah Senesh is considered Israel's national heroine," Schecter offered. "When the borders were sealed in Hungary and it got dangerous, she never hesitated--she said it was better to die trying than not to try. Even in prison, she got a reputation as this relentlessly positive force: feisty, proud, standing up for herself. She found ways of helping others in the prison, became an information center, taught Hebrew through her cell window, wrote poems." (Most of the play is taken from Senesh's diary, which she kept from age 13 to 22.)

Actor/writer Schecter (whose previous adaptations include the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bertolt Brecht) came upon Senesh's diary several years ago and was impressed "by her willingness to take action and serve the community--and her desire to be an artist. I related to that dilemma." Following a debut in 1983, the play (with music by Steve Lutvak and starring Lori Wilner) spent a year Off Off Broadway, followed by six months Off Broadway--and since then has toured both the United States and abroad.

"I think of it as a poem," Schecter continued, "with music, song and dance: very visual, very poetic imagery. We've used symbols like candles"--a recurring reference in Senesh's writing: "One candle can illuminate all the dark"--"and we have a prop: a blue-and-white cloth, which starts off (representing) a tablecloth in Budapest, then becomes the sea, the Palestinian flag, the kibbutz laundry, the parachute and finally the remains of Hannah.

"It gives the piece a sense of poetic elevation."

It should come as no surprise to readers of Edgar Allan Poe that he was not a totally happy, life-embracing human being. But was he an alcoholic, drug-snorting, rebellious, arrogant, sexually twisted creature who, at age 40, stopped at a bar on his way to New York, was robbed, knocked out and taken to the Maryland Hospital for the Destitute and Deranged, where he died (unrecognized) four days later?

"I thought, 'It can't be that far-fetched,' " said veteran director Gerald Gordon, who's staging the world premiere of Willard Sims and Glenn Benest's "Demons: The Last Days of Edgar Allan Poe" (opening Thursday at the Mainstage Theatre). "But I did some research--and it was all true.

"This was someone I hadn't paid much attention to," continued Gordon, former artistic director of the Hollywood Center Theatre. "Beyond 'Annabel Lee' and 'The Raven'--which most people are forced to read in high school--we don't recognize Poe (played here by Barry Jenner) for the genius he was. But his life was far more terrible than any of his horror stories. Talk about demons. . . . "

Orphaned at age 2, adopted soon after by a man who promptly packed him off to military school, Poe later married his 13-year-old first cousin (whose purity he then refused to compromise). "It was a life of poverty, trying so hard to gain success. Poe felt that the world had screwed him--and it had. He was paid only $50 for 'The Raven.' The only living he could make was writing criticism of other people's work and doing brilliant dissertations on creative writing. Writing was his outlet, his only way of living. Because he certainly didn't live in life."

International City Theatre opens its season Friday with the West Coast premiere of Martin Jones' "West Memphis Mojo," winner of the CBS Drama Guild Playwriting Award in 1986.

"It's about passion, integrity and dreams of three black men in 1950s Arkansas, how they approach their dreams, deal with them--and how they end up," said director Shashin Desai, who also serves as artistic director of the theater.

"Mojo" joins the theater's second-season lineup of "New Plays by Americans About Americans," which continues with Lee Blessing's "Oldtimer's Game" (opening May 22) and Elizabeth Diggs' "American Beef" (Aug. 7).

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