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And The Beat Goes On: Naked Hunch

bill and joan

BILL & JOANTheatre Review

Abevy of Beat Generation features and documentaries have recently been released, some featuring high level talents, including: The Beats’ preeminent poet and City Lights bookstore luminary was the subject of the 2009 documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder.In 2010 James Franco portrayed Allen Ginsberg, the Beatniks’ poet extraordinaire, in Howl, a film about the poem of that name and the obscenity trial it spawned, co-starring Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, David Strathairn and Mary-Louise Parker. On the Road was adapted for the screen in 2012, with Sam Riley as its author, Jack Kerouac (called “Sal Paradise”), the Beatniks’ novelist extraordinaire, with Tom Sturridge as Ginsberg (called “Carlo Marx”), Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, plus Amy Adams as Joan Vollmer and Viggo Mortensen as William S. Burroughs.

Ginsberg, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and other expat Beats gathered at a shabby, inexpensive Parisian boardinghouse in the Latin Quarter from 1957 to 1963, as documented in Alan Govenar’s 2012 The Beat Hotel. In 2013 Harry Potter wunderkind Daniel Radcliffe played Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, with Ben Foster as Burroughs. That same year Jean-Marc Barr depicted Jack Kerouac and Kate Bosworth his lover, with ER’s Anthony Edwards as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in Big Sur, an adaptation of Kerouac’s last novel.

In 2012 the University of Kentucky Press published the erudite The Philosophy of the Beats. Now, in 2014, the latest addition to the Beatnik canon is not on the page or screen, but on the stage. Bill & Joan, which is world premiering at Sacred Fools, is about William S. Burroughs (Curt Bonnem) and his common-law wife Joan Vollmer (Betsy Moore), who were to the Beat Generation what the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were to the Punk Rock scene. The two-acter written by Jon Bastian focuses on the tumultuous pairing of the gay/bi Burroughs and Vollmer, “soulmates” born on the same day of the year whose relationship went terribly off the tracks and the beaten path.

bill and joan

Much of the action -- which involves lots of substance abuse and all around debauchery (and douchery), plus, oh yeah, a little bit of writing here and there -- is set south of the border when the titular Bill and Joan were expatriates. In particular, the play tries to unravel what really happened that night in Mexico in 1951 when [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!!!] Bill shot Joan in the forehead while they were playing what they fondly called their “William Tell game,” and something went terribly wrong. (Talk about “shot glasses”!)

Bill & Joan is a deeply dark, disturbing play with lots of sex (much of it gay), male nudity in the dark, explicit language, drug (take your pick) use and violence. No peacey lovey counterculture, these Beatniks. Bonnem’s Burroughs is not exactly prissy -- he’s a bit of a dude or dandy, the well-dressed scion of the Burroughs business machine fortune, who put the “nasty” into dynasty. Moore’s Vollmer is adventurous, desperate, frenetic and frantic. Her common-law husband’s peccadilloes with Mexican rough trade and others seems, among other things, to drive her to substance abuse -- just as her infidelity and hijinks getting high further propels Bill’s heroin addiction. As Ginsberg might have poetically summed it up: “Oy vey!”

bill and joan

A number of the dramatis personae played by the nine member cast seem to be characters from Burroughs’ novels and give form to his roiling unconscious. Among them Lauren Campedelli is a standout as the sultry Lilly Lee who lures the conflicted would-be writer with her allure. Donnelle Fuller is creepy as the Dickens-esque Willy Lee (a pseudonym or nickname for Burroughs), who seems to incarnate his addictions. This drama as well as the murder mystery at the heart of Kill Your Darlings sheds a whole new and not very flattering light on the Beatniks. (Ginsberg’s Columbia University classmate Lucien Carr, who was involved in Darlings’ darkness and is depicted by Dane DeHaan, is mentioned in Bill & Joan.)

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The play as constructed is extremely expressionistic, although there is also something of a linear narrative. The set such as there is consists largely of 72 lights composed of large bulbs mounted onto what looks like hubcaps attached to the wall, and the lighting designers Matt Richter and Christina Robinson attain evocative effects. Perhaps the significance of this abundance of lights is to evoke an interrogation effect -- during much of the action Burroughs is in custody at the Mexican hoosegow, where he is being held on suspicion of shooting Joan and under interrogation by two Mexican detectives (Alexander Matute and Richard Azuria of Weeds) who would be right at home in the 1958 Orson Welles classic Touch of Evil.

Director Diana Wyenn, who is also the production designer, does yeo(wo)man’s work in pulling everything together -- including performances by nine actors, some of them in multiple roles -- in this complicated mosaic that explores the surreal psyche of the author who wrote books entitled Queer, Junkie and 1959’s Naked Lunch, which David Cronenberg adapted for the screen in 1991, with Peter Weller and Judy Davis playing Bill and Joan.

Like that film this almost two and a half hour play (including the intermission) isn’t for ticket buyers who are faint of heart -- Mama Mia! this ain’t. This scorching drama is for the theatergoer who prefers his/her live stage productions to be edgy, imaginative and adventurous -- i.e., Sacred Fools’ house specialty. Bill & Joan tries to explain what Burroughs meant when he confessed that “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing.” In a way, Joan was his un-amusing muse. But one thing’s for sure: William S. Burroughs was to the Beat novel what Edgar Rice Burroughs was to adventure fiction -- and his life and work was no less adventurous than Tarzan’s as he explored the jungles of the unconscious.

Why all this attention focused on the Bohemian behemoths of the Beat Generation now? Well, 2014 is the centennial of Burroughs’ birth, and anniversaries are resonant with the public. But other than that it beats the hell out of me -- although I’m glad that Sacred Fools and the silver screen are remembering these early proto-countercultural rebels.

ed rampell

Bill & Joan is being performed through March 1 on Fridays and Saturdays and Thursdays Feb. 6 and 13 at 8:00 p.m. at the Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A., CA 90004. For more info: (310)281-8337;

Ed Rampell

The new book co-authored by Ed Rampell -- who literally grew up a few miles from where Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road -- is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” See:

Photographs: Jessica Sherman