Drunken Lullabies

Say one thing about Charles Bukowski—the man wrote. You may consider him an overrated hack or justly deserving of his status as underground literary icon, but you must admit: the man relentlessly plied his trade. He wrote. And whether it was about tire marks in his underwear or an illuminating moment of sublime poetry, he was always funny, compelling and, above all, honest.

A good sense of that range is found in Love, Bukowski, a proudly unapologetic ode to the man and his words receiving its world premiere production at California Repertory Company. Adapter and director Joanne Gordon is an avowed Bukowski fan—and while you can make a case that this theatrically oriented poetry reading displays a kinder and gentler Bukowski than the one languishing close to many of our sick, twisted hearts, she gives equal space to the scumminess and delinquency. Hell, the show begins with one of the 10 actors who take turns playing Hank sitting on the shitter in his underwear.

The show thankfully avoids a tired biographical recounting of Bukowski's so-called life. Instead, it allows its characters—the weary and drunk, the hopelessly romantic and despondent—to tell their stories, and to reflect upon all of ours, through Buk's sparse poetry and prose. Highlights include an aging Bukowski ruefully ruminating about writing the kind of poem he swore long ago never to approach: an-old-man-at-the-end-of-his-life poem. And Gavin Hawk's turn as a frustrated diner tripping out on the surreal parade of characters invading an upper-class restaurant is gut-splittingly hilarious.

Yet Bukowski is not perfect. Gordon spends far too long on a throwaway story about a former film actor and his merciless girlfriend. Though well executed, it's the only vignette in this 100-minute piece that feels entirely fictional. Bukowski was unflinchingly candid in his writing—whether writing about himself or documenting the travails of fellow refugees on the underclass railroad. Love, Bukowski works best when the piece's true love story—that bond between writer and words, artist and creation—unfurls as nakedly honest as a blowjob in a trash-strewn alley at 3 a.m., as brutally fierce as a pint glass cracking across your skull, as poignantly real as a drunk's voice coming through in a midnight choir. In other words, when it is as real as its author.


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