PORT TOWNSEND — “Do anything, but let it produce joy,” Walt Whitman wrote.
For Dillon Porter, acting on a stage — be it in New York City or Port Townsend — proves the joy source.
The performer, who played the title role in “Hamlet” last summer and staged an original work about Bob Dylan soon after, is now after the man who sang “the body electric,” the writer reviled during his life as an “aimless reporter,” a “noxious weed” and just plain obscene.
But these days Walt Whitman lives larger than life as one of America’s most visceral, joyous poets, so Porter will celebrate his milestone birthday with six performances of “Walt Whitman 200 Years,” starting Thursday. The play, directed by Rose Burt of Port Townsend, stars Porter at the Chameleon Theater, 800 W. Park Ave.
Whitman “invites all who wish to join him,” the actor noted, adding that music will play and, despite his advanced age, the guy will dance and even open some birthday cards. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday plus two matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; seats are $20 via www.brown papertickets.com/event/4418628 and at the door.
Space permitting, Porter added, no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
On a recent evening at Port Townsend’s Uptown Pub, Porter happened to be participating in the weekly trivia contest. When asked which Whitman passage is most famous, the actor reeled off a clutch of lines.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening.
Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.
Such is a snippet from “Song of Myself,” the Whitman poem from a mere 164 years ago. The writer was in his late 30s; so is Porter now.
“Song” captures “something generous and hopeful,” he said, while asserting that we humans have more in common than we have separation. That commonality? Nature, Whitman and Porter believe, nature in its abundance and variety.
Birth, life, sex, death, love, sympathy, the way our imaginations connect us — those are what Whitman and this performance are about.
Porter has been working on this character for a good dozen years, while collaborating with other artists on a variety of projects. His film “Bastards y Diablos” played in 2016 at the Port Townsend Film Festival; he appeared in Key City Public Theatre’s rock opera “Murder Ballad,” its comedy “Wolf at the Door” and its Shakespeare in Chetzemoka Park production of “Hamlet” between 2017 and 2018.
Almost immediately after that last summer play, he presented “Dillon on Dylan,” his production mixing Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and the eponymous “Voice of a Generation” at Key City. And right after that came “A Meal with Kahlil,” a dinner theater work in which Porter portrayed the “Prophet” poet Kahlil Gibran.
More recently he returned to New York City to adapt and direct “The Dream: Midsummer ’19,” a Shakespeare in the Club event at the House of Yes in Brooklyn. Which was Whitman’s stomping ground for a good while.
In the “200 Years” production, Porter sets out to re-enliven “Song of Myself,” and then bequeath the poet back to the earth. Which brings us to another Whitman passage.
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good help to you nevertheless …
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.