Knowledge Is Power . . . or is it?
By R. J. Donovan
In "Ears on a Beatle,” receiving its Boston premiere at Lyric Stage, the ears belong to the always-listening FBI, and the Beatle is John Lennon -- henceforth to be known as "The Subject."
Based on actual FBI files and tapes, Mark St. Germain's 80 minute, one-act play chronicles how and why the government was so politically unnerved by Lennon and his musical mission of peace.
The two characters in "Ears on a Beatle" are FBI agents; veteran Howard Ballantine (Steven Barkhimer, right) and nubbie assistant Daniel McClure (Michael Kaye, left).
Howard is the hardened company man who’s seen it all. The less experienced Daniel is undercover in hippie garb and doesn’t yet grasp the game -- when he files a report on Lennon’s activities, he winds up reviewing the musical shortcomings of Yoko’s singing.
The two men come purely from St. Germain's imagination, however the fictional pair provide a sounding board for the times and places explored -- RFK's assassination, Jerry Rubin, Martin Luther King, the Nixon resignation, Ford's pardon, The Lennon’s week-long appearance on "The Mike Douglas Show," Roe Vs. Wade, the death of J. Edgar Hoover, and so on.
Robert M. Russo’s simple set is effective. A gallery-like backdrop is created from a series of black and white photographs hung high above the stage. Different images are lit to enhance each scene and provide added focus when we're listening to recordings relating to the action.
While this could come off as a dry, overly-detailed shuffle of papers, the Lyric production is an entertaining evening -- and quite funny. Director Paula Ramsdell keeps the pace bright, and the two skillful actors create a sense of credibility as they push and pull at each other.
Daniel winds up falling in love with and marrying the woman he’s supposed to be shadowing. Howard, separated from his wife, has a 12 year old daughter who worships Lennon -- the very man his operation is desperate to deport for the slightest of causes.
One of the funniest scenes has Howard recanting his accidental meeting with The Subject. He’s supposed to be undercover as a telephone repair man when Lennon drags him into his apartment at the infamous Dakota to check the phones. To avoid blowing his cover, Howard complies, going so far as to examine the phones and assure Lennon they aren't bugged, which of course, they are. He and Lennon bond, share a beer, compare horror stories about growing up and connect in a way the FBI never intended. To his later embarrassment, Howard leaves the Dakota with an autographed 8 x 10 for his daughter in his toolbox.
History plays out, Lennon is eventually shot and the play jumps forward several years for the final button. Howard is now working in Florida, hardly living the intense life he knew in Manhattan. And Daniel has matured into the company man.
St. Germain seems to be going for a hard-hitting look at government information gathering but what he gives us is a very likable glimpse into the relationship of two guys who work together.
Yes, the FBI may have been out of touch. (They’re so clueless, they have to request a picture of Lennon because they don't actually know what he looks like. Millions of people adore this guy and yet they couldn’t pick his face out of a crowd.)
And yes, the INS spent millions of tax dollars and conducted a more heightened attempt to deport John Lennon than it did in trying to toss out Nazi war criminals.
But in the end, the effect is not explosive enough. The question of “what's the government up to now?” is still timely, but maybe we’ve just become desensitized to our lack of privacy. Maybe we’ve gotten used to the fact that our every move is being captured by a security camera -- whether it belongs to the government or the local mall.
Private conversations are routinely recorded, personal records are routinely subject to review, and it's accepted -- without a genuine sense of outrage.
To paraphrase Lennon, “Imagine that.”
"Ears on a Beatle" is at at Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street in Boston through November 20. For information, call 617-437-7172.
-- OnStage Boston
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