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'Return Journey' proves well worth the voyage

October 16, 2003|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

The last words Dylan Thomas allegedly spoke before lapsing into a coma were "39 years, and this is all I've done." Nov. 9 marks the 50th anniversary of Thomas' 1953 death in New York, but local devotees of this greatest of Welsh poets have only tonight to catch the indelible Bob Kingdom in "Dylan Thomas: Return Journey" at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park.

Writer-performer Kingdom's much-acclaimed tribute, which is touring North America during this commemorative year, is a mesmeric achievement of tour-de-force proportions.

In his adolescence, Cardiff native Kingdom discovered Thomas on posthumous BBC broadcasts, later experiencing the famous Caedmon recordings while participating in the Cardiff Little Theatre. After moving to London at 20, Kingdom began including Thomas excerpts in pub recitations. These evolved into an hour at the Chelsea Arts Club, then "Bob's Dylan" at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985.

In 1989, fellow Welshman Anthony Hopkins caught Kingdom's work at a SoHo restaurant. Hopkins subsequently made his directorial debut with "Return Journey" in 1990. The piece appeared on British television that year at Christmas and has since traveled to Istanbul and back.

The concept is simple. Thomas' premature demise followed his final American lecture tour, and so "Return Journey" operates in public-address mode. A podium is the only thing on the stage until out walks Kingdom, or rather, Thomas.

Onstage in his bowtie and sneakers, Kingdom's resemblance to the author of "Under Milkwood" is downright eerie.

Then he opens his mouth. "Good evening, culture vultures," Kingdom intones, and one's mouth drops open. Despite possessing a lighter timbre than Thomas' unmistakable organ, Kingdom's cadences and dynamics are so similar that channeling comes to mind.

This impressionistic re-creation propels "Return Journey" for two flannel-tongued acts that end in a childhood minute. Kingdom's scenario knits together bits of letters, short stories and, unforgettably, the poems. Beginning with "Poem for October" and ending on "Fern Hill," Kingdom speaks Thomas' verse with heart-stopping purity.

"Return Journey" is not a biography any more than its nearest parallel, Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight!" There is only a hint of chronology, and Thomas' alcoholism (which likely hastened his death) is merely alluded to from his whimsical perspective.

Regardless, there is imposing imagination and craft at work. Kingdom's shifts between such characters as Will Century or Thomas' odd-couple uncle and "uncle's wife" (never "aunt") are invisible and irresistibly funny.

Kingdom's genius at emotional pointing is so acute that every utterance of "Caitlin" (Thomas' wife) invokes their turbulent union. The deadpan glee with which he hurtles through Thomas' sporadic nonsequential rambles feels so true it hurts, between chuckles.

And when Kingdom's Thomas burrows into "Lament," say, or "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," the emotional charge is profound. So is Kingdom's extraordinary talent, which distinguishes "Dylan Thomas: Return Journey" as a must-see experience and an unalloyed labor of love.


'Dylan Thomas: Return Journey'

Where: Madrid Theatre, 21622 Sherman Way, Canoga Park

When: Today, 8 p.m.

Ends: Today

Price: $20-$25

Info: (818) 347-9938

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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