Saturday, October 11, 2008

Play: Humpty

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, Adapted by Adrian Hall, Directed by Pam MacKinnon, Intiman, through 8 November, 2008.

Oh right, we take a break from politics to go to a play about ... politics? Such are the times we live in.

All the King's Men, based on the novel (and later movie) of the same name, tells the story of Willie Stark (played by John Procaccino), a Huey Long-style radical populist who grows from a small-town reformer to dictator of Louisiana, right down to both men's final fate. Stark, like Long, is a conflicting character - a tyrant who improved Louisiana more than decades of more legal government before or since. But that part of the story is the flash, the fireworks, the excitement of the tale. It's that larger-than-life plot that the other story is hung upon, which is an individual's story.

Leo Marks is Jack Burden, born to bayou elite, cynic who is first attracted to and then shepherds the young Willie, finally falling into the governor's adminstation as the Stark's "fixer", capable of being able to convince others to do the governor's business with a minimum of threat and bother. Burden starts as a cynic, moves to a supporter, gets emotionally gut-shot at the end of the first act, becomes an uncaring nihlist, then as the rest of the empire goes down, finds some good and acts nobly himself at the very end. I think that the story that we're supposed to see - Burden's tale resolves, while Stark's doesn't, but the two men's stories seem to pull in two directions.

The collapsing of a novel into a play accounts for part of that, I suppose. Less real estate on the stage than on the printed page, more of a drive to cast the nuance in a few lines. But as a result the pacing felt off, and there were a couple places where I fell a step behind. Flashbacks swirl and eddy like oxbows in the river, and one of the early ones left me hanging - where was I in time and space with these people? Only later did I piece together that I had gone back to the beginning of the tale.

The actors (part of a huge cast) are up to the entire proceedings, aging and backing up through the course of the three hours. Leo Marks is flinty and acerbic as Burden, while Procaccino develops Stark's character from stumbling small fry to Kingfish. The rest of the cast pulls main roles and ensemble support with equal aplomb.

The adaptation also merged in the music of Randy Newman into the play, with is another odd vibe to cast into the muddy political waters. Except for a strong, blunt mention in the Newman song "Rednecks", the black man is invisible in this version of Depression-era Louisiana. I'm a fan, but Newman's is one more voice in an already crowded choir.

However, in the end, its a powerful piece of theater, and recommend it strongly. The temptation is to point at current situation, with its messianic messengers of change and power-abusing governors, but by hewing close to the legacy of Huey Long, it belongs where it belongs, and lets you take what piece you choose from it.

Still, it makes me want to read the book.

More later,