In an early moment while playing Burns in Theatre Gael's Rab the Rhymer, Clark Taylor recites a line of poetry so quickly and thickly that you despair of understanding anything for the evening. Then he adds "Ye see what I'm sayin'?" in the first of many ingratiating winks to the audience. Taylor makes Burns an irrepressible, companionable host for a cheerful evening of poetry, song and cock-and-bull stories.
"Well it pleases and surprises me you'd take an interest in my life," Burns tells the audience at the beginning. Atlanta actor and playwright Jim Peck constructs the evening so that as Burns relates his personal history, he quotes his own poetry when appropriate, whether speaking of his humble origins, his religious education or his standing as a ladies' man: "The ones I wanted wouldn't have me and the ones that would ... I took!"
One poem considers a louse on the bonnet of a woman in church, while another addresses a rodent and provides the famous line about "the best-laid plans of mice and men." Hearing his accent and dialect, occasionally you don't know what he says, and even when you do, occasionally you don't know what he means. One satirical poem skewers a hypocritical priest, referring to trivial local scandals that Burns tries to explain in a "guess you had to be there" sort of way. Perhaps the most diverting is "Tam O'Shanter," a Halloween-worthy poem about a drunkard running afoul of witches one night.
In the second act, Taylor trades his peasant garb for the clothes of the gentry, and he enjoys to the fullest his 15 minutes of 18th century literary celebrity in Edinburgh. But he must live out his days working as a farmer and tax inspector to make ends meet, dying at the age of 37. Burns not only left a legacy of Scottish verse but significantly added to the country's population, supposedly siring 13 children, the last of which was born the day of his funeral.
The cottage that comprises the set and features Burns' crib and death bed seems barely to contain Taylor. While reciting Burns' poems he takes the guise of the characters, even using a broom to represent Tam O'Shanter's hapless horse. Whether reminiscing about his many loves or bitingly answering his critics, Taylor's joie de vivre proves infectious.
He also provides considerable musical versatility (although he's not quite a virtuoso on every instrument). Not only does he periodically play piano, he also takes up the accordion, guitar and drum for a repertoire of drinking songs, marching songs and getting-misty-eyed-at-the-pub songs. Crooning a love ballad, he picks a lady out of the audience to serenade, hands her a rose and then blithely drinks from the vase. At the end, Taylor induces the audience to stand and sing along to one of Burns' songs that's so familiar it feels like no imposition.
In Rab the Rhymer, Burns's all-too-brief life doesn't quite come across as terribly dramatic, and without the poetry and music the anecdotes wouldn't be enough to carry the show. But Taylor, abetted by director John Stephens, keeps the action lively and energetic, and Burns' verse can intrigue in both its merits as classic literature and its relative obscurity compared to the likes of Keats or Byron. In reciting Burns' works aloud, Taylor brings a modern poetry slam to 18th century Scotland.
Rab the Rhymer plays through Feb. 4, with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. at Theatre Gael, 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th St. $12-$18. 404-876-9762.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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