Actor John Rainer doesn’t just recite T.S. Eliot’s early masterpiece “Prufrock and Other Observations,” he inhabits the world created by the elegant and eloquent J. Alfred Prufrock — Eliot’s lonely, frustrated, slightly neurotic alter ego.
Rainer’s Prufrock is both witty in his observations and wary of the outside world. The man he portrays is most definitely Hamlet-like in his pursuit of purpose and place in the world despite the character’s protests to the contrary.
Rainer’s presentation of “Prufrock’s World: A Dramatic Exploration of T.S. Eliot’s Early Poems” last weekend was the West Coast premiere of a piece he constructed several years ago and staged to rave reviews in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and England.
Four additional performances remain on the playbill at Oak Street Dance Studio & Theater, 1287 Oak St., Ashland. Rainer will take center stage with his one-man show at 5:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan, 26, and at 2 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27.
Tickets are $20 for general admission, $10 for students, and can be purchased at prufrocksworld.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 800-836-3006.
In a pre-show telephone interview, Rainer said he “foolishly decided to put the piece back on its feet” while puttering in the garden of his cottage in north Wales. Performing a nearly 70-minute monologue is not an easy feat, he admits, and slipping into the persona of what he calls a tortured, complex man is exhausting.
Based on the reaction of last weekend’s audience, resurrecting the piece was not foolhardy. Rainer’s enthusiasm for Eliot’s poetry and empathy for Prufrock’s elusive grasp of reality and exasperations about relationships had the audience transfixed. He performed a patchwork of Eliot’s poems — stitched together, he says, from the poet’s notebooks, scribbles and “Prufrock and Other Observations,” published in 1917. The performance was flawless without a loose thread or a snag.
The tiny Oak Street Dance Studio provides an ideal venue for the intimate glimpse into Prufrock’s world. The stage was sparse with minimal props. Antique furnishings, a China tea set and park bench set the scenes underscored by music played on a turn-of-the-last-century radio.
Without costume changes — other than sweeping a shawl across his shoulders or donning a hat and trench coat — Rainer deftly slipped in and out of characters.
An American ex-pat who settled in England in 1915, Eliot became a British citizen in 1927. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, Eliot’s poetry and plays echo William Shakespeare perfectly for the British-born-and-bred Rainer.
Using Eliot’s poetry as a brush, Rainer’s Prufrock painted word pictures as he sipped afternoon tea, observed humanity outside his window, paced about the drawing room and eavesdropped on conversations, strolled along the London streets, and sat in a moonlit park on a restless winter’s night.
Semi-retired in Ashland after decades of performing in New York and Great Britain, Rainer says he mounted the show because it was time to perform again ... to get into action; to just do it.
Inspired by British theater giants Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud and Dame Edith Evans who performed well into their 70s and 80s, he admits that actors never really retire.
“You burn to do it,” he says about the passion to continue performing.
Rainer was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. He recalls growing up in England, where reading, reciting and performing poetry is second nature, he says.
“Poetry and the great poets are part of our heritage.”
He trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had an extensive theatrical career in England. He performed many seasons with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, Richardson’s Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford East, London. He also appeared in British television series and film productions.
A career highlight was a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when he played Sparkish in William Wycherley’s classic comedy “The Country Wife.”
A longtime resident of New York, he also appeared as a guest on U.S. television series, such as “Law and Order” and “Loving,” and has done voice-over work for TV commercials. He was cast in the films “Scent of a Woman” and “Private Parts” and appeared on Broadway in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Taking Steps,” the revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus,” and Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love.”
Other solo performances include “Rambling Sam,” based on the life of Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” and “A Christmas Cracker,” a holiday selection of verse and prose.
Rainer says he zeroed in on Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to introduce American audiences to the poet’s work beyond the Broadway show “Cats.”
Rainer’s “Dramatic Exploration of T.S. Eliot’s Early Poems” will likely garner new fans for the poet.
Tammy Asnicar is a freelance writer living in Grants Pass. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.