Underbelly: One man show on William Burroughs bounces off the fringes

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Categories: Professional Theatre

Ottawa Citizen February 27, 20140Theatre review: One man show on William Burroughs bounces off the fringes

Jayson McDonald in Underbelly, Photo credit William Beddoe

At one point in underbelly, Jayson McDonald’s hallucinogenic, one-man show inspired by the life and times of mid-20th century American beat writer William S. Burroughs, “Willy” gives us a brief autobiography. He then mimes the famous Burroughs writing technique of cutting up and repositioning phrases, so the original recounting of how he lost his virginity to a prostitute is transformed into “I lost my virginity to mankind.”

It’s a sardonic reflection on his own and all of life — much as the entire show is — and a reminder of how Burroughs’ relationship with normal reality was a loose one. That relationship seems, on the basis of McDonald’s show, to have bothered Burroughs not in the least.

Burroughs was, of course, a junkie and a writer so a readiness to reconstruct reality according to his own parameters isn’t surprising. And because he was also a gifted writer, when Willy starts talking about giant bugs and assorted other creatures that could have slithered straight out of John Carpenter’s horror film The Thing, a dark, even hypnotic lyricism sometimes emerges.

Dressed in a suit and fedora as Burroughs customarily was, McDonald also gives us cameos of Burroughs buddies and fellow beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. They help flesh out a show that could otherwise have been monochromatic, especially because McDonald imitates Burroughs’ pinched, uninflected voice.

McDonald weaves other strands through the show including an intermittent narrative about a gunslinger on the lam with his gal and their seven-year old son. The trio’s adventures are part of the show’s travelogue through a 1950s America that’s as strange to Burroughs as he is to it.

Directed by Jeff Culbert, the show is economically written and performed. On the other hand, at just one hour and with neither set nor props, it does feel like a fringe show, albeit a good one, that got lost and wound up on a main stage.

Continues until March 8. Tickets: 613-233-4523, thegladstone.ca.

A Black Sheep Theatre presentation

At The Gladstone

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