By Sabina Mollot
Peter Cooper Village resident Kathleen Butler, a co-founder of a theater production company called Triumvirate Artists, will be directing a limited run of “Pound,” a new play starring Christopher Lloyd.
The play, by Sean O’Leary, focuses on the American poet Ezra Pound, who made propaganda radio posts for Mussolini during World War II and was eventually charged with treason. Found to be too mentally unfit to stand trial, Pound then spent 13 years at the St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in a ward for the criminally insane.
The play imagines what his final two months there would have been like when Pound, who had basically ruled the institution where he had been given many privileges, suddenly finds himself in despair and in isolation. He then undergoes some very extreme forms of “treatment” at the hands of Mary Polley, a young psychiatrist. Polley’s methods involve inflicting extreme guilt on Pound, by then 73 years old, for his actions.
“One of the things that comes up often at the heart of this play is that words can make a difference,” said Butler. “Words can kill. Words can have dire consequences, even when you don’t realize it.”
On Pound, Butler said, “He was a fascist. He was very influential, influencing T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. He was very brilliant, but he lived in Italy and was anti-Semitic.” When he was finally released, Pound, who had openly expressed support for Hitler, gave the Nazi salute to a group of assembled reporters.
Pound was unquestionably manipulative and whether he had actually been unfit to stand trial or not is explored in the play, considering the penalty for treason was death. In contrast, his incarceration at St. Elizabeth’s may have felt like an extended vacation, especially once Pound understood that his time there was coming to an end. Hardly a horror house full of shock treatments and gratuitous sedation, at St. Elizabeth’s, Pound was allowed to teach classes, play tennis and have his own room.
Butler said the play was chosen due to its highly charged political and psychological focus.
Triumvirate had learned about the play six years ago but was focused on another project at the time. Additionally, Butler, who also acts, found herself busy doing that as well as non-Triumvirate directing work, so “Pound” slipped into the cracks until casting was done last year. Lloyd took on the role of Pound after being sent a script and he did a live reading last fall at The Vineyard Theatre in Union Square.
Butler said the actor, who’s mostly known for the “Back to the Future” films and others like “The Addams Family,” has also continued to work on the stage, where he began his career in New York.
“Everyone knows him from ‘Back to the Future,’ but he also just did the narrator in ‘Our Town’ in New Hampshire and he’s done ‘Death of a Salesman,” said Butler, “and he’s anxious to do more stage.” Since he recently bought a home on the Upper West Side, “now he can,” she added, also calling Lloyd “the nicest guy.”
The dramatic reading at the Vineyard, she added, was well-received, but the play still needed cutting after that to be less “meandering.” The play now runs at 80 minutes and features four actors, with Pound and Polley being the main characters.
“Pound” will have sixteen performances from October 1-28 at The Lion Theater on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. From this showcase run, Butler said she hopes to be able to raise the money and promotion the play needs to be extended to a venue off-Broadway. Performances are Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets, $71.25 including facility fees, can be ordered online.
Triumvirate previously produced the comedic play, “Delirium’s Daughters,” on Theater Row with an eight-week run. Butler also recently directed a non-Triumvirate play called “Seeing Stars” about juvenile macular degeneration.
Triumvirate was created with the goal of providing work for actors and crew members aged 55 and up and is the only theater company in New York City with this mission. Butler runs the company along with husband Dan and a third partner, John Essay.
“We all live in an ageist business,” said Butler. “The technical people, actors, anybody will tell you how ageist it is. It’s funny in a way because for film and TV there are a lot of small parts and older women reading, but we’re all chuckling, because there are not that many lines for us. I think that they think we can’t remember them.”
Butler then joked that “old ladies must be in,” because she has recently landed roles for characters who couldn’t stop talking.
With Triumvirate productions, casts are a mix of older and younger. Butler began directing four years ago with a production of “The Marriage Play” by Edward Albee at the Theatre Artists Studio in Phoenix.
She and Dan, who raised two daughters in Peter Cooper Village, and prior to that lived in Stuyvesant Town, have been in the community since 1966.