Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ receives an inspired stage production
Neil Asa Oktay, Katie May Porter and ensemble / Darrett Sanders

LOS ANGELES—Open Fist Theatre Company just unveiled its interpretation of the famed Welsh poet’s Under Milk Wood, originally written as a 1954 radio play but revived from time to time as a stage work and in film (see below).

This linguistic tour-de-force, regarded as Thomas’s supreme accomplishment as a writer—though his A Child’s Christmas in Wales also continues to be popular—comprises a day in the life of the small fictional Welsh seaside town of Llareggub, with a wide-ranging cast of over 50 characters that one might find there. Various professions are represented among its colorful folk: a sea captain and fisherman, the butcher, the barber and herbalist, the barman, cobbler, draper and undertaker, the sweetshop owner, the proprietress of a guesthouse, the schoolteacher, church organist, linoleum salesman, farmer, police constable, postman and preacher, and even a rooster doing his duty at daybreak. They all have their vivid fantasies, many libidinous and ecstatic, as nighttime dreams turn into waking routines, daily habits and gossip, and the eventual dusk and sleep that sum up a busy 24 hours of sharp and close observation of humanity. The play is a warm and tender appreciation of the human spirit, without a false note of sentimentality.

His play reflects the sea-slapped coastline milieu in which Dylan Thomas grew up. At first glance his fictionalized, balmy spring day Llareggub would seem to be innocent enough a place, until you read the name backwards! Then the true saltiness of this mini-saga comes through, with unforgettable characters such as Jack Black, the sexually repressed cobbler; Mr. Pugh, who constantly dreams of poisoning his crabby wife; sweet Polly Garter, loved by many men, but still pining for her long-dead Little Willy Wee; Mr. Waldo, who has impregnated virtually every woman in the countryside; twice widowed martinet Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, who dreams of assigning household tasks to her two dead husbands; and town bigamist Dai Bread.

Thinking about his radio commission, Thomas wanted to make “a piece, a play, an impression for voices, an entertainment out of the darkness of the town I live in and to write it simply and warmly and comically with lots of movement and varieties of moods, so that at many levels, through sight and speech, description and dialogue, evocation and parody, you come to know the town as an inhabitant of it.”

The graphic suggests the milk of human experience flowing into the sea.

Ben Martin directs a large cast of 19 actors, with a live pianist on stage and a cast willing to throw itself into the reinvented barroom ballads and children’s rhymes that light up the production. At one point the cast circulates among the audience getting us all to sing along. “Our production draws inspiration from the celebrated ‘Living Theater,’’ he explains. “We’re adding elements of music hall and British pantomime to bring Dylan Thomas’s rollicking, bawdy, life-affirming masterpiece to life.”

According to Open Fist artistic director Martha Demson, “Under Milk Wood oozes a troubled yet exuberant lust for life and love, much like Dylan Thomas himself. In these angry days, full of vitriol and scorn for those who are different, it seems a welcome antidote to celebrate and embrace the flaws and weaknesses that come with being human, and all through Thomas’s extraordinary language.”

Thomas became the iconic modern romantic poet, who died from alcoholism at the age of 39 after a particularly long drinking bout in New York City in 1953. Under Milk Wood was barely finished at the time of his death, having just been read aloud in New York. His fame translated into the popularity of the name Dylan, which was adopted by the singer Bob Dylan.

The creative team includes music director and sound designer Tim Labor, lighting designer Ellen Monocroussos, costume designer Carol Brolaski Kline and graphic designer Liam Carl.

With so many roles to inhabit, loosely distributed among the 19 players, it was inevitable that a few of the smaller roles would come across routinely, but overall Martin lavished the same attention on the town’s main characters as he might in a small family drama. Many of these folk who populate this odd place display the affectionate charm, humor and flamboyant drunkenness that characterized the poet himself.

The Open Fist ensemble features Richard Abraham, Dillon Aurelio-Perata, Bryan Bertone, Christopher Cedeño, Stephanie Crothers, Cat Davis, Bruce A. Dickinson, Claire Fazzolari, Katherine Griffith, Jennifer Kenyon, Carol Kline, Tim Labor, Gina Manziello, Paul Myrvold, Neil Asa Oktay, Michael Philbrick, Katie May Porter, Kenia Romero and Jade Santana.

Now about those films: The first adaptation to the big screen was a 1972 British film directed by Andrew Sinclair, featuring performances from a number of well-known actors, including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Glynis Johns, Peter O’Toole and others. It was not commercially successful. In December 2012 Andrew Sinclair gave its rights to the people of Wales, and in 2014 the film was digitally remastered and re-released to celebrate the centenary of Thomas’s birth. A second film version directed by Kevin Allen, appeared in 2015 and won a certain fan base.

Under Milk Wood in the Open Fist Theatre Company production runs through Aug. 25 with performances on Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 7 pm. Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Ave in Los Angeles 90039. Parking is free, in the lot half a block south of the theatre. For reservations and information, call (323) 882-6912 or visit the company website here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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