To all you dreamers out there, who haven’t taken the plunge because you’re afraid to be laughed at, meet William “Topaz” McGonagall, a handloom weaver who lived in Dundee, Scotland, from 1825 to 1902. When the writing bug struck him at age 51, he gave up everything to pursue his newfound passion, becoming arguably the worst poet in the English language.

He was ridiculed, lampooned by critics and the butt of many a practical joke. But for the last 26 years of his life, he was doing what he enjoyed. And to this day, his works are published and his name still resounds in the annals of history. So, in the end, who really got the last laugh?

You’ll be laughing right along with McGonagall at Portland Stage’s outrageously funny, yet touching, Studio Theater production of “The Real McGonagall,” which opened Saturday night with a world premiere performance.

Portland Stage has transformed its intimate Studio Theater into an 1887 tavern in New York City called Leary’s Hell’s Kitchen Grog Shop and Eatery. Crushed peanut shells cover the floor like sawdust, and rough-hewed tables and chairs skirt three sides of the performance area. Brave patrons who show up early can sit at the tables and enjoy a bucket of peanuts and a tankard of nonalcoholic cider, served by the production’s director, Ron Botting.

“The Real McGonagall,” written by Willy Holtzman and based on Topaz McGonagall’s autobiography, stars Mark Honan. The British-born actor doesn’t just play McGonagall, but rather seems to channel the essence and artistic fervor of the real-life man, complete with Scottish brogue. Topaz may have been a common, relatively worthless stone in the 1800s, but in Honan’s hands, McGonagall and his life story are priceless gems.

A twinkle gleamed in Honan’s eyes from the moment he appeared on stage Saturday in full kilt and cape attire, crushing peanut shells underfoot while sweeping and chatting with patrons at the tables. And that was before the show officially started.

McGonagall envisioned himself to be an actor, poet, songwriter and performance artist, and Honan put his heart and soul into bringing all of Mc-Gonagall’s quirky, ungifted glory to life once again.

It was nonstop fun as Honan’s McGonagall regaled the audience with tales of a priest whispering from the grave that he should write poetry, his unintentionally comic forays into acting, his quest to become poet laureate to Queen Victoria and his harrowing travels to America to claim his “fame and fortune.”

And, yes, the audience is treated to samples of McGonagall’s poetry, all the inappropriate rhymes and rhythms, weak vocabulary and poorly chosen imagery robustly recited for all to hear.

Join Honan on the eve of McGonagall’s return voyage to Scotland and revel in McGonagall’s quirky shortcomings. After all, who’s to say he wasn’t a comic and artistic genius? It’s hard not to admire his unrelenting spunk. And, as Honan’s McGonagall asks the audience at the end, “Have you never wanted to rise above your workaday life?”

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

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