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An engrossing ‘Trial’

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Fred Nuernberg is giving a heroic performance locally in a Canadian play about a truly great US poet, Ezra Pound, who was accused of treason following World War II.

            Pound exiled himself from the US to Mussolini's Italy at age 39, and throughout the war, he broadcast to American soldiers his messages of hatred toward Jews and everything associated with Franklin Roosevelt's administration. When he was arrested and returned to the US shortly after the war, at age 60, he was placed on trial to determine whether he was mentally fit to stand trial on treason charges. Found to be insane, he was incarcerated for 13 years in a Washington, DC, asylum.

            As Shipping Dock Theatre's excellent production illustrates, Timothy Findley's engrossing play, The Trials of Ezra Pound, not onlydetails but also embodies the endless contradictions in this true story.

            McCarthyism, among other influences, virtually buried the movement to free Pound, although some of our greatest writers got him awarded the prestigious Bollingen-Library of Congress Award for his poetry only two years after his trials. But Pound's forbidding persona and the mixed reactions of even his supporters also helped to obscure his case.

            In the play, we see Pound's recollections of his trials and the events that led to them. As in Moises Kaufman'sGross Indecency: the 3 Trials of Oscar Wilde, actual trial-transcripts are sampled and seen from differing perspectives in highly theatricalized excerpts, interrupted by Pound's flashback reminiscences. Barbara Biddy's understated direction gives those shifts and changes variety and clarity without ever seeming gimmicky. But one problem is that we see the drama mostly from inside Pound's mind, and it is a fascinating but ugly place.

            The trials' main question was whether Pound was insane or a traitor. Evidently, he was neither. Fred Nuernberg plays him as contentious, capricious, intransigent, and unpleasant, but somehow likable. I doubt that last quality. The real Pound was undeniably brilliant and self-aware, but also irredeemably bigoted. His supporters all seemed to appreciate his genius but didn't necessarily share his views. The redemption that they provide is their belief that a man should not be tried or persecuted for his views, however malevolent, without a provable connection between his menacing ideas and dangerous actions.

            Fred Nuernberg's involving performance as Pound is all the more remarkable since he stepped in only days before the opening after Doug Bradburd of Brighton, an Ezra Pound buff, had to give up the role because of abdominal surgery. Other standout performances are Virginia Flavin's Dorothy, Pound's loving but long-suffering wife; Roger Gans as poet William Carlos Williams, whose lifelong friendship overcomes his distaste for Pound's ideas and behavior; and B. Anthony Gibson as the hospital custodian who oddly forms a helpful, steadying relationship with this cantankerous patient.

            The solid cast also includes David Woodworth and Morey Fazzi as the defense and prosecuting attorneys; Leah Maxwell as a hostile Jewish reporter; Don Anderson as the dignified Chief Justice; and Alan Frost and Ken Bordner as two psychiatrists with contrasting beliefs and manners but both determined to save this great poet's life. Billy De Metsenaere has an interesting cameo as the psychiatrist who exposes the previous false diagnoses as efforts to avoid the lethal charge of treason.

            Pound says he doesn't know whether the insanity verdict --- which kept him alive but virtually imprisoned --- was a victory or not. And neither do we. There is much resonance here for our contemporary governmental thought-control and persecution of opponents, as well as our growing anti-Semitism and minority-bashing. But Ezra Pound is a riveting protagonist, because we find it as hard to like him or support his ideas as we do to approve of punishing, much less destroying, him for his hateful points of view.

The Trials of Ezra Pound by Timothy Findley, directed by Barbara Biddy, plays at Shipping Dock Theatre in the Visual Studies Workshop building, 31 Prince Street, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through March 6. Tickets with reservation $20; $22 @ door; $12 student w/ID; $18 seniors on Sunday: 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org.

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