Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review of "O Captain, My Captain: Whitman's Lincoln" at Walnut Street Studio 3

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

At its best, theatre attempts to create another universe, no matter how big or small, drawing the audience into a world fashioned entirely by the production of a play or musical. Certainly, Bill Van Horn attempts this in his 90 minute piece O Captain, My Captain: Whitman’s Lincoln, where he plays "America’s poet" Walt Whitman.

Set designer Glen Sears has done his part, transforming the entire Studio 3 space into a late 19th Century parlor in Camden, a time capsule filled with enameled paintings, Victorian furniture (and lots of it; not a single member of the audience forced to sit in anything less!), neo-classical statues, and beautiful silver serving sets. On one side of the room hangs a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln, facing him on the other wall, hangs a painting of Lincoln’s favorite actor and future assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Even the stage manager greets the patrons at the door in a high-necked gown (the more modern tattoo on her neck still visible though), an unseen "Mrs. Gilchrist" plays piano in an adjacent room, and a young serving girl (uncredited) hands out corn bread and lemonade to the audience. And when Van Horn bursts in as Whitman, costume designer Mary Folino has tailored him in a suit stolen straight out of one of the daguerreotype group "photos" adorning the walls.

We, Whitman tells the audience, are going to be part of his experiment, a preparation for an upcoming lecture tour, and the subject matter of the lecture is the same as the title: Whitman’s reflections on the life of Abraham Lincoln, from the time the former President attempted to enter politics in 1847, until his assassination in 1865. "I was there and saw everything," as they traveled the same roads and stayed in the same cities (when Whitman worked as a journalist), and later, when the poet lived in DC during the Civil War, sharing in the President’s aspirations for the fractured country.

Hopefully, everyone who grew up in America already knows some of Lincoln’s story, which Whitman punctuates with relevant sections of his poetry, intoning how he "yet shall mourn with ever returning spring" the death of a President that happened 22 years earlier and changed the spirit of the country.

But thankfully Whitman did not bring us to his brother’s house in Camden for a history lesson, either one to correct the falsehoods or lead us down familiar paths. Instead, he remarks what’s still true of today, that "All legends are basically true and America would much rather hear a good story than an accurate report."

Peppered with anecdotes, Van Horn’s play gives us a good tale, and in these little details, a new fascination for the familiar emerges. Whitman recounts the story of following the President’s corpse on its route from DC to Illinois for the burial. Making a stop in Philadelphia, thousands thronged 30th St. Station, and when the processional passed through town, a crowd hissed at the actor Edwin Forrest when he tried to apologize because one of his profession had committed the murder.

We also learn that Booth was Lincoln’s favorite actor, and that the President had earlier seen him in "The Apostate," a play in which Booth strode to the front of the stage and pointed straight at Lincoln when giving his speech denouncing a traitor. But unfortunately, these anecdotes (in which Booth prefigures heavily) provide the most interesting parts of the evening, and I wondered why I watched this piece here, at the Walnut Street, rather than slightly across town at the Constitution Center.

For while I get the story about Whitman’s love of Lincoln, very little gives me insight into Whitman himself, and hence, the play shows a speaker, but doesn’t offer a character (in a one-person performance, I can almost handle not getting a plot). Van Horn’s piece gives vague allusions about the poet, noting that he must live off the charity of family since his "latest misfortune," but those of us who don’t know the story of Whitman as well as we know Lincoln’s have to chew through this undercooked morsel of history. The piece, nonetheless, follows an interesting arc: Whitman did not initially vote for Lincoln, and didn’t vote at all in 1860, but yet came to admire the President.

As the poet, Van Horn holds the room throughout. He becomes bombastic when excited, and curls over like a wounded animal when finally mourning the President’s death, without ever dipping into the sugary waters of melodrama. Reciting several of Lincoln’s speeches verbatim, he delivers them with perhaps greater oratorical power than the President conveyed (I was certainly moved to belief).

But again, I wondered why I watched this on a stage and not in a lecture hall, classroom, or historical venue. And while it engrosses, even when Whitman meanders off topic, Van Horn’s piece isn’t so much a "stage-play" as a "staged event" or historical reenactment.

Historically, theatre finds its foundations in storytelling, one person under dim lights, assuming a variety of characters, spinning a tale to entrance an audience. I enjoyed Van Horn’s piece and performance immensely, even if by today’s standards of production and drama, it doesn’t so much create a universe of imagination, but tells a story that’s worth hearing.

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