INCOMMUNICADO. Drama by Tom Dulack, based on the Ezra Pound case. Starring David Hurst. Directed by Blanka Zizka. At the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater through Aug. 5. THE stage is dark, but gradually a sort of dirty dawn comes up and reveals a big cage, big enough for a gorilla. Inside stands a man, a poet, the American-born Ezra Pound, caged for the crime of treason.
Pound is imprisoned near Allied-controlled Pisa during World War II as a war criminal by order of the United States government, which accuses him of treason for being the Tokyo Rose of Italy.
``Incommunicado,'' Tom Dulack's new play here, devotes a riveting 2 hours to what happened to Pound in 1945. It makes for a harrowing, provocative production relieved by bursts of mordant wit and black comedy. It is not an upbeat evening of theater, but Mr. Dulack's superb script and the searing performance of David Hurst as Ezra Pound make it a worthwhile one.
``There must be some mistake. I don't belong here,'' Pound says at first from his cage. An expatriate and a virulent anti-Semite, Pound had broadcast Fascist propaganda against the Allies and the Jews in Italy during the war, although unaware of the holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps.
He knows he's been charged, but it isn't until the US government eventually dispatches a lawyer to explain the enormity of the charges that he realizes for the first time that his words have been not only laced with hate but lethal. Later, in a delirum, he is reported to have said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, although he says he doesn't know Hebrew.
The caged poet, as we first see him, is being guarded by a black MP who despises the racist Pound for betraying his country. The soldier tells Pound with unrrelenting loathing, ``You being held incommunicado. You not supposed to talk.'' And no, he cannot let his family know where he is. No, he cannot have counsel. No, he cannot have a newspaper or book. Most especially, he cannot have a pencil and paper to write.
Penned up like a beast, with no sanitary facilities, he is hosed down every 24 hours to clear away the filth. Fed food dumped on a plate, he eats like a dog.
Into this wretched experience creeps a little light, as Pound battles his circumstances with his wits and spirit. ``Shuddup, Pound. You forbidden to speak, even to yourself,'' says his guard, as Pound begins alternately insulting and cajoling him into supplying some contraband paper and a pencil stub. ``The pen is a potentially a lethal weapon,'' Pound sneers at his guard. He quotes Confucius and Ernest Hemingway, tells jokes, and challenges the MP to a boxing match - and loses badly.
When he finally gets his paper and pen, and writes (``It is a secret message in some kind of code; it's poetry,'' he tells the guard), the infuriated MP tears it up. Then Pound literally eats his words, stuffing the shreds of paper down his throat. He is either incorrigible or irrepressible, telling the guard he doesn't need to write anything down: ``All I do is close my eyes, and I see the poem, hanging like a picture on the walls.''
His government-issue lawyer, Forbes, doesn't read poetry. ``How can you possibly defend me then?'' Pound asks. His lawyer tells him the government wants to hang him on 84 counts of treason from his broadcasts. ``I don't think you can get a fair trial,'' he tells Pound, who has never heard of Dachau or Auschwitz and doesn't recognize what the grisly concentration camp pictures he's shown are. ``In the US, Jew-baiting has become treason. ... You can't go to trial,'' Forbes tells him. Pound refuses to plead guilty.
After intermission, we find Pound talking to a white-coated government doctor who's a fan of his poetry and quotes a line: ``Whatever comes, one hour was sunlit.'' Ill, half-mad, delirious from his caged exposure to the elements, Pound later is told by his lawyer that he must plead insanity to live. Forbes reassures Pound, a brilliant poet and the father of modernism, that a lot of important writers are going to save him: Archibald MacLeish, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot will all ``testify that you were insane even before the war.'' Pound murmurs, ``Eliot dedicated `The Wasteland' to me,'' as the lawyer explains, ``It's the only way to save your life.''
And that is what happens, as the play ends with Pound's sentence of confinement to St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington.
In addition to Hurst's, there are fine performances by Reginald Flowers as the unseen death-row prisoner Till; John Michael Higgins as the hard-nosed lawyer Forbes; and Edwin Owens as Dr. Muller.
O.L. Duke gives a particularly fine performance as the rigid MP, who gradually is kneaded by Pound into a certain grudging friendliness and an interest in poetry.
Andrei Efremoff's set for the military detention camp near Pisa, where the play is set, is grimly effective, with its man-cage and dirt floor. It is surrounded by a tall, menacing gray stone wall that gives the audience the feeling of being trapped at the bottom of a giant well. And Jerold Forsyth's ominous lighting casts an appropriate shadow on the play.
Blanka Zizka directed ``Incommunicado'' in a taut, devastating style, which holds the audience like a thriller. That's no small feat when the outcome has been telegraphed from the beginning.
Czechoslavakian 'emigr'es Blanka and Jiri Ziska, her husband, are the artistic directors of the Wilma Theater of Philadelphia. ``Incommunicado'' was the 1988 grant winner of the Fund for New American Plays.