Lone Rangers

Give Barbara Walters credit. Or maybe it's Sigmund Freud who deserves the accolades. While we're at it, let's not forget the hordes of celebrities now clamoring to publish their memoirs or autobiographies. All of them must be taken into consideration when attempting to explain the contemporary worship of every famous individual's private thoughts and feelings.

To root out the theater's complicity in propagating the trend, you can begin by looking at a fellow named Aeschylus, who was the theater's first playwright of record. Inspiring dramatists everywhere, Aeschylus performed all of the principal parts of his early plays himself, choosing only later in his career to introduce a second actor to Greek drama--or so the legend goes. Sophocles added a third performer, and Euripides introduced short singing parts for boys, no doubt laying the foundation for musical theater in the process.

In a return to those early traditions, actors are gravitating in ever-increasing numbers toward the solo performance. In doing so, they sometimes resemble Bottom, the Shakespearean buffoon who craved to play all of the parts in a play and wound up being the original ham. But who can blame these modern loners for trying? Flying solo, after all, allows a performer to pursue the kind of in-depth treatment that satisfies an audience's love of great storytelling. And though the result may be either exhilarating success or total humiliation, just making the effort represents an actor's private Everest. It's a climb that requires experience, and while the general public remains fond of productions that feature dancing teacups, casts of hundreds and eardrum-busting sound systems (something the Greeks managed to do without in theaters that sat upwards of 15,000 spectators), three recent performances by veteran actors prove that the one-person show survives to speak to us in the quieter, more personal tones preferred by a growing number of theatergoers.

Or so it seemed when Hal Holbrook breezed through town earlier this month with his famous one-man show Mark Twain Tonight. A Broadway hit by 1959 (Holbrook toured with it as early as 1955), the show later marked a television milestone with its 1967 broadcast. The 72-year-old actor periodically revisits the piece, adding and deleting material to serve contemporary issues and interests. (It's rumored that he retains several hours' worth of Twain material in his memory, all of it ready to be trotted out at any given time.)

Though stage lighting, makeup, props and a microphone (the last item an unfortunate necessity in the 2,800-seat Buell Theatre) all filter Holbrook's contact with his audience, the content of his show is anything but artificial. By virtue of his long association with the character, he has become as closely linked to Twain as newspaperman Samuel Clemens was while he was still alive. The Denver audience delighted at Holbrook's mere presence on stage, laughing at and applauding the Twain writings that he expertly delivered amid cigar puffs and simple gestures that punctuated particular points.

Holbrook's two-hour endeavor is the quintessential one-man show, simultaneously permitting the actor to evoke Twain's grumpy musings, provoke contemporary thought, mix humor with poignancy and earn a standing ovation from a near-capacity crowd at evening's end. And one can well see why: Twain's commentary, unlike that of many of his contemporaries, has survived the test of time because of its insight into human nature, not because of its obsession with the temporal issues of his day.

We laugh, for instance, at Twain's observations concerning religion (especially when he tells us that his cat resembles a Presbyterian soprano), not because we care one whit for the distinctions he makes regarding this or that denomination or because Presbyterians are particularly feline, but because he communicates lofty ideas through a homespun poetry--something religion often can't seem to accomplish without falling all over itself.

Furthermore, Holbrook has learned to win people over before he allows Twain to begin preaching to them; the first half of his program comprises brief anecdotes and epigrams that arouse our contemporary sensibilities. It comes as no surprise to us that judges are given to drink, or that newspaper reporters ask silly questions in their probing for the truth, or that the investigations conducted by congressmen are "amusing but not useful, and still going on."

All of which is a fine prelude to the centerpiece of the play, in which Holbrook portrays several characters from Huckleberry Finn, a story more about the ugly problems of racism in America than about the escapades of an adolescent youth--or do the two boil up from the same hell mouth, we wonder? Pulling out all the stops, Holbrook mesmerizes us for the greater part of thirty minutes, and the serious message of his show--that America had better get over its race problem and grow up if it's to flourish as a nation--isn't lost on anyone. With characteristic humor, he wraps up the show with a few jokes and sends us home because, he tells us, his teeth are loose. Not half as much as our imaginations have been freed up, though.

Attracting a smaller and considerably older crowd was entertainer extraordinaire Victor Borge, who's still taking his act on the road, complete with the vintage jokes and routines that have been a part of it since its American premiere in 1941. Performing for 110 intermissionless minutes, the Danish immigrant (he fled his native country after making provocative remarks about Hitler shortly before the Germans invaded in 1940) also succeeded in bringing several hundred Buell spectators to their feet at the end of the evening. Their generous response prompted the 87-year-old performer to remark, "You have bestowed on me a great honor."

A master of the non sequitur, Borge has created an act that's all about contrast. His unique sense of humor regales us one moment, while his still-superb musicianship at the piano quiets us the next. Just when we think we're going to laugh at him yet again, Borge surprises us with several minutes of, say, Rachmaninoff. Then he disrupts our reverie with a story about the man who created 4 Up, 5 Up and 6 Up but died before inventing the product that would have surely won him fame and fortune. He enchants his audience with old favorites such as "Phonetic Punctuation," a story that he tells with audible commas, periods and exclamation points that are amusingly childish. He also increases each number found in the story to correspond with the seemingly natural phenomenon of price inflation and thereby begins his tale with "Twice upon a time." What would doom any other performer to hisses and uncomfortable silence is instead a hysterical comedy routine in the masterful hands of Borge.

In fact, a few Buell spectators who'd caught Borge's act as far back as the 1950s declared that he was as funny as he'd been in the days of Ed Sullivan--a remarkable feat that Borge has achieved without becoming a walking anachronism. In particular, he plays to children without pandering to them and appeals to the masses without resorting to base or crude jokes. He hems and haws a bit, but so do most politicians half his age, and with far less magnetism and appeal than Borge. And anyone who can sustain, as Borge does, a running joke of finding "Happy Birthday" in every classical tune from Beethoven's "Minuet in G" to Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" deserves all the applause he can get. Not to mention all the adoration he can possibly bear.

Sixty-something local Tony Church is the youngest of this trio of grand old men, though no less a household name as far as Denver theater audiences are concerned. The show he's put together might not be instantly recognizable: Give 'em a Bit of Mystery: Shakespeare and the Old Tradition was seen on November 9 in a one-night, invitation-only performance prior to embarking on a regional tour of universities and Shakespeare festivals. But it's a tour de force for the highly esteemed Denver Center Theatre Company performer, a two-hour performance that chronicles the acting styles and traditions of great Shakespearean actors.

Church's show relies on a detailed context that is sometimes above the head of the average theatergoer. Yet despite a jittery first twenty minutes in which he adjusted his efforts to the demands brought on by a capacity crowd in the Ricketson Theatre, the former Royal Shakespeare Company actor was in fine form on his day off from the DCTC's production of Misalliance. A graceful performer, Church wove stories of famous actors with several magnificent renderings of Shakespearean speeches, all the while guiding his audience through the evening with humorous, tongue-in-cheek commentary. He explained why the fingers of actors are spread apart in portraits taken before 1900: Candle and gaslight made illumination of the actor difficult, so performers made prominent use of their hands in order to be seen and recognized by spectators.

Church's greatest triumph occurred in the second half of the program, when he appeared to be on surer ground, as did his audience, which had little trouble recognizing the names of some of the actors he masterfully impersonates--John Gielgud, John Barrymore, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier. Church also touched hearts with his personal remembrances of actresses Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft, both of whom he worked with in days gone by. And as he exquisitely re-created each speech (and each personality), we slowly gained a greater appreciation for his own talents, which may one day be accorded as high a place in the grand scheme of things as those of the actors he has lovingly brought to life in this gem of a show.


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