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Leaves of Grass

Jeremy Bloom's exploration of Walt Whitman's great poetry, performed by a troupe of primarily nude men and women, is unquestionably sincere.

By New York City
Dillon Porter in Leaves of Grass
(© Paradise Gonzalez)
Dillon Porter in Leaves of Grass
(© Paradise Gonzalez)
In a world -- cultural and otherwise -- where glibness, snarkiness, and even downright meanness seem to be prized as virtues, there's a lot to be said for the kind of old-fashioned sincerity being found in Leaves of Grass, Jeremy Bloom's performance-art take on Walt Whitman's poetry, now at the Cell Theatre -- even if the presentation is far from old-fashioned.

While performed faithfully and fearlessly by a troupe of nine (primarily nude) men and women, who recite -- both separately and together -- some of Whitman's best-known excerpts from his meditation on life and death, Leaves of Grass doesn't fulfill all of its theatrical potential, and can feel a bit overlong even at a mere 60 minutes.

Bloom makes decent use of the duplex's staircase, but the main downstairs playing area -- surrounded on two sides by rows of benches -- feels a bit cramped, and one longs for more actual dance or movement to accompany the text. (The electronic music of Chicago's Matmos provides a mostly unintrusive background.) Visually, dozens of baggies filled with green and amber liquid (representing the leaves) floating over the stage add a nice touch -- though they too seem underused -- and there is clever use of projections on one wall; sometimes, the exact words to the poems fill the space; at other times, just selected phrases; and occasionally, some abstract imagery. Props are kept to a minimum; some, like a bowl of water, are evocative; others are more mystifying.

Judged as actors, Bloom's troupe is also a bit of a mixed bag, with some of the performers bringing not quite enough affect to their recitations (which is perhaps a deliberate choice by Bloom). Of the standouts, LaCrisha Brown, the first reader, brings a wonderful exuberance to the text, while Dillon Porter (perhaps the most conventionally attractive man on stage) possesses both real presence and vocal facility. Yet, while the group all have appealing bodies, those who come for sheer titillation will definitely be disappointed.

Still, any chance to hear Whitman's great -- and timeless -- exploration of the human condition, should not be overlooked, whether the speakers are clothed or otherwise.


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