A Poetic Pas de Deux from Taylor Mali and Marie-Elizabeth Mali

Taylor Mali (photo by Seth Rogovoy)

Taylor Mali (photo by Seth Rogovoy)

Taylor Mali
Open Heart Perjury
Thursday, July 14, 2011

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – At one point during his terrific, aptly titled one-man show, Open Heart Perjury, at the Triplex Cinema, spoken-word artist Taylor Mali riffed on the fact that a namesake of his in the Berkshires performs an annual gig in his hometown.

“This is my Tanglewood,” said Mali, referring of course to James Taylor’s yearly performances in Lenox.

Mali’s annual performance at the Triplex has indeed become a tradition that many look forward to, judging on the mad rush to get seats in the upstairs theater. The show was sold out, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies, plays and concerts in the region. And this, my friends, was a poetry reading.

A sold-out poetry reading. What a concept.

Bono as The Fly? No, Taylor Mali in onion-slicing eyewear (photo by Seth Rogovoy)

Bono as The Fly? No, Taylor Mali in onion-slicing eyewear (photo by Seth Rogovoy)

Of course, a Taylor Mali performance isn’t like your typical poetry reading. There is nothing precious or austere or academic about a Mali show – and indeed, it is a show, and this one-time aspiring actor would certainly acknowledge, indeed, as his poetry itself acknowledges. “Truth is more important than facts,” or something like that, is one of Mali’s mottos, and Mali is nothing if not loyal to the truth of the situation, which includes being entertaining in addition to being “poetic,” whatever that means.

Of course, poetry is supposed to be entertaining – it certainly was at its genesis, and often has been and still can be. Perhaps not in the academy, and maybe not even in the pages of the New Yorker, but living, breathing poetry of the sort Mali writes and recites is full of vitality, wit, surprise, suggestion, provocation, and humor. It’s full of recognizable situations – dirty dishes lying around the kitchen, a grumpy lover, a scary father – and utterly surprising ones – beating bats to death with tennis rackets, beautiful female seatmates in an airplane suddenly transformed into fat, stinky gun-toting fat guys. It’s full of spontaneity, improvisation, audience give-and-take, local references, and even props and a little vaudeville shtick. Mali may never have made it as an actor in “legitimate” theater, but he’s anything if not an illegitimately entertaining poet.

Mali is perhaps known best as a National Poetry Slam Champion, which he is, but this wasn’t a poetry slam, but rather a tautly focused, hour-plus evening more along the lines of a one-man show, or an evening with. Mali’s poems about love, family, the specialty kitchen store on Railroad Street, and his wife, and his stories about his childhood (to which we were treated an extra dose, with a couple of his siblings in the house) and his driveway, were more like chapters of a monologue – Mali is as much a Spalding Gray as he is a Tony Hoagland.

Marie-Elizabeth Mali (photo by Seth Rogovoy)

Marie-Elizabeth Mali (photo by Seth Rogovoy)

We were also given a special treat in the person of Mrs Taylor Mali, better known as Marie-Elizabeth Mali, herself a poet and a kind of partner-in-crime. Marie-Elizabeth took the stage to read a half-dozen poems of her own, and if they shared some of the same concerns as her husband’s – marriage, love, domesticity, family – they are utterly different stylistically, a lovely contrast to Mali’s – a little more imagistic, metaphorical, ethereal, where his tend towards the bluntly narrative, firmly grounded, well … more masculine to her feminine. In their hands, vive la difference.

The two even duetted in a choreographed recitation of a poem, I’m going to say, by Pablo Neruda (if my memory serves me well, which it may not, and for that the New York Times says today I can blame the Interwebs). They so lived and breathed this poem between themselves it’s hard to believe they didn’t write it together; watching them perform it, bilingually (Marie-Elizabeth is a fluent Spanish speaker), was nothing less than like watching a pas-de-deux of poetry.

James Taylor used to perform once a summer at Tanglewood. In more recent years, he’s up to three or four appearances per summer. Judging by the audience response last night at the Triplex, in a show presented by the New Stage Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield, Mass., the annual Taylor Mali summer residency may need to expand beyond the single sold-out show we’ve come to love and expect to come our way every summer.



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