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Get too close to an object of desire, and you lose track of its outlines. I suspect that’s what’s happened with Kryztov Lindquist and Season in Hell, the fierce but forced monologue on Arthur Rimbaud that Linquist’s performing for SCENA Theatre in the post-apocalyptic space downtown at Studio 1019.

Climbing into the mad poet’s thin skin is apparently something that’s been on Lindquist’s mind since his early 20s, when, SCENA’s notes tell us, he conceived a kinship with Rimbaud and his ideas about “total derangement of the senses,” which “seemed entirely appropriate for a young man in New York in the 1970s.” A pilgrimage to the great man’s hometown of Charleville, a series of poems written there, a ballet scenario offered boldly but fruitlessly to Nureyev once upon a time, and now this play, created at Lindquist’s suggestion by Washington writer Otho Eskin: These are the fruits of the actor’s sense of identification with the self-destructive genius. I have to say I wish Eskin’s vehicle seemed more worthy of such a magnificent obsession—and of a performance as fearless and ferocious as Lindquist’s.

And Lindquist is uncompromising. Taut and restless, with wild blond hair framing a brow pinched with bitterness, he inhabits the warehouselike space around Michael Stepowany’s square gray platform set with the arrogant, possessive air of a cat, and his command of the text is entirely sure. His Rimbaud is both lovely and loathsome to look at, a tanned seraph burned to madness by the heat of the sun he has worshiped.

Robert McNamara’s direction is restless, too, to put it kindly. “Busy” would be the word I’d use if Lindquist’s constant circulations, his dressing and undressing, his ascending and descending of stairs weren’t so clearly designed to distract from the script’s shortcomings: This Season (as opposed to Rimbaud’s work of that title) seems merely serviceable where shattering is indicated, its language all too often earthbound where ecstatics are clearly wanted. It’s a curious thing in a play about a poet whose own language rocked the world. Odd, too, that in all of Eskin’s wash of words there’s no poetry, no point at which Lindquist-as-Rimbaud says, “Consider and weep: This is what I created before I threw it all away.”

Eskin’s language climbs no higher, in fact, than in a number of rather strenuously lyrical passages that celebrate the various esoterica of Rimbaud’s hedonism, from absinthe to the cabala: “The most delicate, the most precarious adornment—to be drunk on the magic of that herb from the glaciers. To see the joyful night in inky spasms descend upon the street. O desolate drinkers. And then lie down in shit.” And later: “I searched for You in the emerald corridors of absinthe—in the pale anthems of drugs….My mind’s disorder is a sacred thing. I am consumed by the anger of rainbows.”

Youth and transgression are drugs, too, but what comes of their inspiration is no more coherent: “We knew the terrible shudder of hesitant love on bleeding ground, in a hydrogen glare.”

Instead, there are conversations—necessarily one-sided, but not terribly graceful about their one-sidedness. That they’re framed as the dying Rimbaud’s colloquies with his life’s chief ghosts—his despised mother, his onetime lover and mentor Paul Verlaine, with a God he eventually learns to curse—doesn’t quite excuse their stilted feel. (To Verlaine: “You, at least, have the right to speak. I don’t begrudge you that. Just be kind.” You know a would-be serious work is in trouble when it can’t hear in itself a laughable little echo of Tea and Sympathy.)

Season in Hell does manage to describe the arc of Rimbaud’s brief life, from his chill provincial youth to the barracks rape that may have forever colored his philosophy to his triumphant rampage through literary Paris and his sudden, desperate abandonment of his art at age 21. And if it doesn’t quite suggest a plausible explanation for that abdication, it does try to hint at the contradictions that must have raged in Rimbaud’s soul: “I am superior because I have no heart,” Lindquist intones, though he has already indicated in wistful tones that he does perhaps have regrets. “You gave me love and tenderness…an enchanted world that I had only read about. And what did you get from me?”

But even this, as I think about it, seems like easy sentimentality; a brutally unapologetic Rimbaud would have seemed more in keeping with the sensualist we’ve read about. Eskin’s antihero finds a kind of peace at death’s door, too—which seems even more indulgent—and the unsubtle Christ metaphor that is the play’s last image is nothing short of bizarre. A really thrilling theatrical take on Rimbaud would posit him as a rebel who rages until the last light has died, his cry an uncompromising “Give me liberty and give me death.” CP