Maggie’s Riff: A Pitch-Perfect Tune for Lowell’s Native Sun

One of the great powers of the human brain is extrapolation: we can glimpse a ball flying through the air and effortlessly imagine both where it must have come from and who will be in position to catch it when it lands. And I think this is why we love origin stories so much. Our heroes and idols typically come to our attention only when they are fully formed, balls in mid-flight and near their apogees, and the collective whirring of our predictable simian brains must be deafening as we clamor for more information on where the arcs began. If we could just know the launching spot, the trajectory, what the wind was like on the day they took off, then maybe we could predict the rest or, even better, become like that ourselves. In “Maggie’s Riff,” FaultLine Theater feeds 75 minutes of raw, red meat directly to this universal human impulse, deftly imagining for us the fountainhead of a meteoric artist and cultural icon whose parabolic, outsized life looms perennially large in our shared consciousness: Jack Kerouac.

Maggies Riff
Paul Rodrigues (Jack Kerouac)
Nicole Odell (Maggie)
JD Scalzo (Mouse)
Rich Lesnik (Doctor Sax)
Jon Lipsky (playwright)
Cole Ferraiuolo (director)
Noelle Viñas (assistant director)

Before there was Hunter S. Thompson to make metaphor of road trip or Red Hot Chili Peppers to make amnestic, anodyne repeat of simile as California, there was Jack Kerouac. Despite his complex literary body, progressively known only to the rare and contemptible breed who has bothered to read any of it, his name will forever most prominently conjure images of the open road and our westward golden state. In our mind palaces, we can smell the whiskey-soaked noir cafe or flophouse transiency, cigarette smoke wisping, jazz saxophone playing everything pentatonic in the background. Maggie’s Riff opens to a spotless rendition of this, like a genius eccentric professor writing the answer at the bottom of the blackboard and then immediately digging in hard from the top, slowly elaborating a grand theatrical connect-the-dots that credibly takes us from a pubescent Catholic boy in Lowell, Massachusetts, to the raging bull of poetry and liquor that we know he must become. As the literal embodiment of Doctor Sax riffs behind a blue silhouette screen, the play opens with Jack hard at work in his generation-defining beat poet laboratory, expounding yet another line about open roads erupting from the east coast darkness. Then he stops: “You know, I never liked driving,” and we are off to the races.

Jack Kerouac, 1943
Kerouac’s Naval Reserve Enlistment photograph, 1943. The jawline says gridiron, but the eyes say Prozac. Source:wikipedia

Jack himself is played by Paul Rodrigues, a talented local force who has appeared in other FaultLine productions, and he is in top shape in Maggie’s Riff. He has the athletic build to slip easily into the role of Kerouac, whose abilities on the field were his first ticket out of Lowell, MA, as a running back recruit for Columbia University, but Rodrigues does not carry forward the emphasis on physical acting that he has had in the past. He inhabits instead a tortured mental world, in which he is racked by competing emotions and a lack of purpose. This pensive melancholy imaginably sat on the real Kerouac’s frame with the same violent awkwardness that it does now on Rodrigues’, the haunting juxtaposition of existential dread and self-destruction against the unmistakable lines of a body built for speed and physical accomplishment. Sketching in the high-contrast relief to this persona is Mouse, Kerouac’s lithe accomplice and high school compatriot, played skillfully by JD Scalzo in one of the finest examples of agreement between character and body type in recent memory. At first blush, Kerouac and Mouse are two peas in a pod, ne’er-do-wells scheming and covering each other’s tracks beneath the fading rays of boyhood light. But for every ounce of Jack’s indecision, Mouse has a pound of honed clarity, and he quarterbacks in progressive frustration from the sidelines as his gifted friend erects barriers for himself and then wrecks against them. Scalzo perfectly conveys his character’s firm belief that success lies in leaving Lowell, despite his own inexorable future there, and his wild eyes and exuberant vocal inflections tell the tale unmistakably.

Kerouac the track star
He’s running, get it? Doctor Sax in the background, providing a jazz-era score to the 100m dash. Not fully visible are Mouse’s suspenders and high-waisted pants, a spot-on choice by costume designer Brooke Jennings. Sounds in this stompy, noisy scene (and other stompy, noisy scenes) provided by sound designer Evan Wardell.

Mouse is, at times, drunk with excited sureness of Jack’s victorious departure, but this is always immediately tempered by a jolt back to fear: fear that Jack’s success and lack of conviction are letting Lowell put its claws deep into him at exactly the worst moment. Chief among these claws is Maggie Cassidy herself, the girl-next-door siren played now by Nicole Odell, who croons to Kerouac mellifluously about staying in the “lap of love,” and who, in one memorably intense scene, pulls out the stops and the girdle straps to seduce Jack not into a life of dissipation but rather into one of children, normalcy, and wallpaper. The play deals repeatedly with such forks in the road, inflection points where the only choices are binary and the only possible outcomes are wildly divergent. A common literal refrain in the script is a singing chant line: “Something was supposed to happen, didn’t happen. Something was supposed to happen, didn’t happen…” If a bit on the nose, this does ferociously underline one view of the way in which the plot advances in each of our lives. Specific momentous decisions cast the die, and we either stay in Lowell or end up vomiting blood and dying at age 47 in Florida while living with our third wife, Stella. This is likely a reductive approximation of the true machinations of the universe and human agency, compressing a lifetime of small choices and propensities into one noble story arc that appears inevitable and coherent only because hindsight imbues most stories with those qualities. Did Jack Kerouac live and write “On the Road” only because he didn’t stay with Maggie Cassidy, or would he have emerged in nearly the same form at a slightly later time from the shambles of a Kerouac-Cassidy union, rising like a fate-bound beatnik phoenix? I know where I’d put my money.

Jack and Maggie
Large parts of the set were composed entirely of light and shadows, thanks to lighting designer Maxx Kurzunski and shadow designer Alisa Javits, which allowed clever transitions to be made quickly. Reams of paper on the wall are harder to change, however, so those were always there. Thankfully, Javits was able to shadow them when necessary.

The debate between choice and fate is one phrasing of the unanswerable question over whether it is internal or external factors that ultimately shape our lives, and Maggie’s Riff addresses this directly in its moments of obvious choice but also in a series of subtle trysts with the topic. The play actually flirts coyly with the idea of being a musical, and some of its most important concepts are exposed in sung lines against the ever-present smoky jazz score that drifts persistently through the theater. The sweet, breathy saxophone that you have intermittently forgotten about (played by Rich Lesnik) is suddenly joined by Odell’s warm, inviting mezzo-soprano, and we hear that “your only love is your first love.” This could be read as Maggie making a case for her place in Jack’s life or, alternatively, as a summative evaluation of Jack’s confused and restless personal life, but there is another plausible interpretation: perhaps the line is a comment on the maddening predictability with which we all act. Each of our loves seems superficially different, but we are inextricably a part of all of them and are likely repeatedly exhibiting the same thought patterns and behaviors from one to the next. In that way, none of them is so different from the first one, and we are forever fated to find varying manifestations of the same “first love” that we originally found in our coming of age. In the fever dream of Maggie’s Riff, the living synecdochic embodiment of this is Maggie herself, who floats wraithlike through Jack’s memories, her constancy both comforting and tormenting.

Kerouac at his typewriter
Kerouac famously taped together tracing paper so that he could type endlessly without feeding in new sheets. Not pictured: a similar mechanism for auto-feeding the whiskey as well. Prop design by Brittany White.

The bulk of the play’s action happens against the backdrop of Lowell, Massachusetts, and the town itself is elevated nearly to the point of being a living character. Mouse speaks hotly of “what this Lowell can do to you,” and the place seems to be both cunning and sentient, ready to snare would-be escapers. This is, of course, how many young people view their hometown, and it dovetails with the play’s line that “everybody comes from somewhere.” These sentiments can, again, be read as ruminations on the degree to which we can escape our upbringing, if we can at all. The latter line is especially koan-like in its incompleteness: it doesn’t specify whether we are who we are because of or despite where we came from, and it isn’t even clear if it is referring to a physical “somewhere” or an ideological one. The true answers to “nature vs. nurture,” “agency vs. fate,” and all similar questions are ultimately unknowable, and the play explores this maturely in an oblique light.

If Maggie’s Riff succeeds in its treatment of youth and hometowns, at least some of that is likely due to the rare assortment of behind-the-scenes factors at work in the current staging. The script was written more than twenty years ago by Boston-based playwright Jon Lipsky (1944-2011), who was long ago a mentor to its current director, Cole Ferraiuolo, and father to its musical director, Adam Lipsky, both of whom have ventured out of Massachusetts and across the continent to produce it early in their young careers. The parallels to the themes in the work itself cannot be missed, and it’s possible that this story will never be better told than it is now, by young artists who recently arrived in California after New England upbringings.

Maggie and Jack
“Here I am writing you out of the rest of my life story, lovey dove. But don’t worry, I’ll keep a convenient symbol of you around for when I need a rhetorical device.”

While Maggie’s Riff gets much right, it does share a common failing with most biographical works. In any hero tale, there is a strong tendency for the narrative to turn completely on the story of the main character, with all other actors and events progressively stretched and flattened into a two-dimensional blur as they hurtle inward to be subsumed within the one true story arc, doomed to be simply the accretion disk of the black hole star they orbit, collapsed secondary perspectives that soon will never be heard from again. In the solar system of Jack Kerouac, Mouse and Maggie quickly become microscopic peripheral items, degenerating from people to foils to cartoons to dustbin remnants and finally to existence as symbols only, all of their past substance having been siphoned off to form a clearer picture of Jack. In a moment of what is perhaps recognition of this, Maggie snaps into Jack’s face that they’re not so different except that she’s a girl. Only the strongest screams of the ego are able to penetrate into another person’s narrative, and this is nearly the only time that we hear from any character in a way that doesn’t directly advance Jack. When the solipsistic revisionist history reaches its full zenith, the play does take one final haymaker at it, showing us that Jack has forgotten his friends’ real names as he has more and more inhabited his own aggrandized memories. Maggie is actually Mary Carney, and she spits the words at him with the venom of flesh-made-bit-character before walking out of his life.

As Doctor Sax finishes out Maggie’s riff one last time, we can see in the last embers of the play that Jack will escape from Lowell but also that it will equally escape from him in the process. As his storyline extends to the golden horizon of Big Sur, so will he exit bit by bit from the lives of the people who launched him from Massachusetts. In the end, we are not each the burning star of the story that we imagine unfolds around and dependent upon us. We are instead planets, sometimes captured and content to orbit in one locale for a while and, other times, destined to wander.


“Maggie’s Riff” is playing at PianoFight in the Tenderloin through June 11th (get tickets here):

  • Thursday, 5/26 @ 7:30pm
  • Friday, 5/27 @ 7:30pm
  • Saturday, 5/28 @ 7:30pm
  • Sunday, 5/29 @ 6pm
  • Thursday, 6/2 @ 7:30pm
  • Friday, 6/3 @ 7:30pm
  • Saturday, 6/4 @ 7:30pm
  • Sunday, 6/5 @ 6pm
  • Thursday, 6/9 @ 7:30pm
  • Friday, 6/10 @ 7:30pm
  • Saturday, 6/11 @ 7:30pm

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