A Poem, a Stink, but Not a Play 

Word for Word's Cannery Row is a noble but sluggish experiment.

These days, it may be one long tourist trap with a great big aquarium at one end, but in the '30s, Monterey's Cannery Row was "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." John Steinbeck was writing in 1945 about the Row as it was a decade before, all canneries and bars and whorehouses, unemployed men, and a great silver river of cleaned, cut, cooked, and canned fish. Cannery Row is a wonderful novel, light-years ahead of its time in many ways and infused with the Nobel Prize winner's massive heart.

Steinbeck, who was fascinated by science of all kinds, integrated his readings on quantum physics into the creation of Cannery Row. He even developed a theory similar to modern superstring theory. The structure of the novel is consistent with his resultant "nonteleological" thinking. When it's at home, teleology is the science of ends, the idea that everything that happens does so for a reason, to a particular end. Steinbeck didn't care for that, and was more interested in showing that a thing just is. He'd also read widely in philosophy, psychology, and Eastern religion. All of which shows in Cannery Row, which for its time has a very untraditional narrative structure, replete with seemingly unrelated "interchapters" that are as likely to focus on a gopher building himself a home as the story of a woman who loves to throw parties.

It makes sense that San Francisco's Word for Word wants to bring native son Steinbeck's work to life. For one thing, this year marks the hundredth anniversary of the author's birth. For another, Word for Word has never done Steinbeck before. But this particular novel might not have been the best choice for their Opening the Book project. Designed to inspire audiences to read the rest of a novel on their own, Opening the Book performances consist only of the first handful of chapters. In this case, it's the first seven, which Steinbeck spent largely setting scenes. Although the rest of the book has a lot of movement -- wild parties, fistfights, petty thievery, dogs, children, and about a thousand frogs -- you wouldn't know it if you stopped reading after page 41.

It's not as if Word for Word isn't making a valiant effort. Director Sandra Langsner Crews is working with great actors, including Brian Keith Russell as gentlemanly vagrant Mack, Andrew Hurteau and the protean Adrian Elfenbaum in ensemble roles, and Patricia Silver as flame-haired madam Dora Flood. The words themselves are beautiful, sometimes unexpectedly so. A good example is chapter five, which begins with a list of the marine creatures Doc (Mark Phillips) collects. The actors, speaking as though they are ordering samples over the phone, recite the litany: "The living moving flowers of the sea, nudibranchs and tectibranchs, the spiked and nobbed and needly urchins, the crabs and demi-crabs, the little dragons, the snapping shrimps," and the wonder of the undersea world is evident. But the words aren't enough to combat the relatively stagnant nature of the beginning of the book.

Some of the artistic choices are awkward. The music in places is gratingly New Age-y and anachronistic; an unfortunate choice when music features so prominently in the original. Doc, the character based on Steinbeck's good friend Ed Ricketts, is listening to all sorts of music all the time, either on his treasured phonograph or in his head. Why not use some of the period-appropriate music referenced in the book? The literalness of some of the blocking, meanwhile, seems needlessly detailed, especially contrasted with the more fanciful moments (the whole cast wriggling on the floor like fresh-captured fish, for example). Clearly, keeping up with Steinbeck's sudden shifts in tone is a challenge; Crews and her cast are all over the place trying.

Compared to some of their other recent work (i.e., their translation of the Tobias Wolff stories, or the transcendent Winesburg, Ohio), Cannery Row isn't as strong a showing for Word for Word. Taken on its own, it's pleasantly nostalgic and well-acted -- if a little sluggish, through no fault of the actors.

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