A word about words

Christopher Plummer’s one-man show at Stratford is almost a tour de force. A Word or Two is Plummer’s paean to poetry, prose and a lifetime of reading that began when he was just a tad in a home where everyone gathered after dinner to read aloud. The launch pad for him was Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, specifically an illustration in the book of “an aged man a-sitting on a gate” whose visage and lyrical poem beckoned Plummer to enter into other worlds through words.

Plummer, winner of an Oscar earlier this year at 82, was suitably self-deprecating. “I was an only child, so I was often left on my own. Can you blame them?” But he is also the smart-assed ne’er-do-well. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he always answered, “An orphan.” Throughout the performance, which runs about ninety minutes without an intermission, he played on those two sides of his character: the delight and the demon.

The set is simple: three chairs, a lecturn, a desk, and a swooping pile of books in the shape of curved staircase. He rarely refers to a text while delivering, among other favourites, great swaths of Shaw’s Man and Superman, a biblical passage, Robert Frost’s poem about swinging on birches, and a Shakespearean monologue.

Plummer also goes for the easy laugh. Every once in a while he dapples in a well-worn phrase such as “A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, but doesn’t.” Such lines tickle the audience but they seem somehow out of place. He is also still tinkering with the show, which is now in previews and officially opens Thursday. For example, he did a W. H. Auden poem using a southern accent, which was odd given the fact that Auden grew up near Birmingham (England, not Alabama), read English at Oxford, lived for a while in New York, and died in Vienna. Even Plummer seemed to realize he was in trouble, finally asking aloud, “Why am I doing this in a southern accent?”

But to have memorized so much at his age – or any age – is a wonder to behold and melodious to hear. Still, as my daughter Alison pointed out, Plummer mentioned Gertrude Stein in passing but the only female whose words ‘scaped his lips was the American poet Emily Dickinson. The canon was thoroughly masculine. As for Canadian writers, Marshall McLuhan was cited, but I can’t recall anyone actually quoted.

I also found the ending less than satisfactory. During the usual standing ovation Plummer graciously took his bows, exited stage right, and was gone. There was no encore. The show was suddenly over. It was all too abrupt from the warm bath of words to the cold shower of silence. I would have liked a final flourish of trumpets, maybe Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas, or some other lilting verse to turn over on my tongue on the way home.

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