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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Bea(u)tiful in the Extreme
by Laura Hitchcock

cast members
Some Cast Members
(Photo: Michael Lamont)
The Colony Theatre combines its first original production as an Equity Theatre with the approaching bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's historic exploration of the Northwest in the world premiere of Leon Martell's Bea(u)tiful in the Extreme. The title's spelling, corrected by his journals' editor, reminds us Meriwether was no speller and, as he tells us himself, no scholar.

Told from the vantage point of Lewis's memory, the play is nevertheless chronological, beginning with snapshots of Lewis's alcoholic father and herbalist mother. From this affluent but bleak home, Lewis becomes an Army officer and is called by his Virginia neighbor, President Thomas Jefferson, to explore the west in hopes of finding a water route, or northwest passage, from the Missouri River to the Pacific.

Lewis's partner and friend is William Clark and they assemble a varied crew, ranging from the youthful Shannon who almost gets lost in the woods to Clark's valet, whose black skin and dancing skills fascinate the Indians. In addition to the life of the withdrawn depressive Lewis and the revelations of the valet York, the play traces the story of their Indian guide Sakajawea, who was kidnapped as a girl and sold into slavery to a French trader by whom she has a child. She guides the party back to her native village where she is no longer wanted because of her son. When the expedition ends, Clark asks her to bring her child to St. Louis and she vows she will expose him to the white man's world. One of the play's most powerful moments is Sakajawea's second-act monologue.

The playwright makes effective use of Lewis's journals. Though no writer, Lewis doesn't hesitate to describe what he sees and how he feels.

The peak of his journey is also its trough. Looking at the Pacific Ocean, Lewis comments on the continuous moaning of the waves. There's nothing here, he says with blank bewilderment. Lewis's later life followed the tragic trajectory of so many American heroes. Hounded by the government to pay for the gifts he gave the Indians, his sad, lonely, perhaps mad final years ended in a suspected suicide.

Martell's taut script takes advantage of its opportunities for humor and their very sparseness and simplicity, appropriate to the spare pioneering style, gives director David Rose a chance to enhance them, which he does with astute timing. Rose has a knack for nuances and a sensitivity to the characters, both the exuberant explorers and the curious but welcoming Indians. Here in our country's dawn we see the possibilities in early race relations before the colonizers' greed destroyed their rapport.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's created a scenic design of bleached wood platforms and endless sky. (How come they got so much sky out here? This is where they keep it.) a large platform represents the river raft and hanging nets representing the mountains the men climb. When the Indians are asked what they call the mountains, one replies, "We call them Don't-Go-There."

Donald Sage Mackay spearheads the excellent ensemble as Lewis, performing the difficult task of playing a man who is compelling but lacks personality. Tony Maggio as a dashing William Clark complements him very well. Beautiful DeLanna Studi grows into her role as a strong Sacajawea. The rest of the cast play numerous parts, including donning mob caps to portray Lewis's mother and landlady. Particularly powerful characterizations come from Tom Dugan in dual alcoholic roles as Lewis's father and Clark's brother; Patrick Huey as the valet York, assorted Indians and Mrs. Grinder; Kenneth Martines as Thomas Jefferson, the great white father, and Black Buffalo, the Indian chief who welcomes the expedition to his country; Blaise Messinger as Sacajawea's husband; Andrew David James as Shannon and Kevin Symons as Mrs. Lewis and Frederick Bates. Jeffrey Schoenberg designed the costumes, doing particularly well on Sacajawea's exquisite deerskin dress.

Playwright: Leon Martell
Director: David Rose
Cast: Tom Dugan (Lewis Senior, General George Rogers Clark, Sgt Gass), Patrick Huey (York, Big Horse, Mrs. Grinder, Voice of the Bear, Twisted Hair, Blackfoot), Andrew David James (Shannon, Nowaykesugga, Mandan), Donald Sage Mackay (Meriwether Lewis), Tony Maggio (William Clark), Kenneth Martines (Thomas Jefferson, Shields, Black Buffalo, Cameahwait), Blaise Messinger (Dr. Rush, Colter, Charbonneau, John Adams, Old Toby), Jonathan Palmer (Boat Builder, Drouillard), DeLanna Studi ( Sacajawea, Julia Hancock), Kevin Symons (Mrs. Lewis, Cruzatte, Frederick Bates)
Set Design: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz
Lighting Design: David Flad
Costume Design: A. Jeffrey Schoenberg
Sound Design: Michael Hooker
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with 15-minute intermission
Playing: Oct. 19-Nov. 17, 2002. The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Ph: (818) 558-7000 Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on Oct. 19.
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