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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates

I know that our intentions are good. --- Lewis

I think that is not enough. I think those words are inscribed over the entrance to Hell. ---Clark
br> The title of Robert Schenkkan's new play is both ironic and symbolic. There have been many plays about Lewis & Clark, Vietnam, and the invasion of Iraq but Schenkkan, no stranger to epic as witnessed by his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle, has the chops to construct a dramatic overview which, despite some wordiness and familiar clichés, works overall.

Schenkkan explores the divide between talking the talk and walking the walk in 200-plus years of the history of American intervention, beginning with a nervous Captain William Clark (Jeffrey Nordling) and a drunken Captain Meriwether Lewis (James Barbour) setting the stage for the tale of their amazing journey. As the two call on President Jefferson (Morgan Rusler), Lewis enthuses over Jefferson's "vision, ideals" and ability to "talk the stars out of the skies." Jefferson's orders to the two are taken verbatim from his own words but the first example of racism appears in the person of Jefferson's slave and mistress Sally Hemmings (Tess Lina). She appears from under his desk and her frisky jiggling makes it clear what she was doing there. She tells her poignant history in French, translated by Clark's slave York (Eugene Lee).

Although Jefferson enjoins Lewis and Clark to bring back "all the facts" this scene establishes the selectivity intended by those facts. One of the first American conflicts was Jefferson's powerful words espousing everyone's right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and the facts that these rights did not include women and slaves.

In Act I, the explorers glide down the Missouri river, meet the Arikara, the Mandan and the Sioux, and gleefully plan how to set them against each other. They're awestruck by the magnificent animals they encounter and celebrate their passion by shooting them needlessly. In an ax transaction, Lewis is the first to voice the perennial dilemma of trading: "It's one thing to sell them weapons and quite another to actually let them use them." This act ends with the surprising appearance of an armed Spanish soldier, circa 1901.

The second act finds Lewis and Clark time traveling through the armed interventions of the 20th and 21st centuries, confronting Colonel Teddy Roosevelt's "humanitarian" charge up San Juan Hill, the atrocities of General Jake "Hell Roaring" Smith in the Philippines, and an American Military Advisor in 1963 who assassinates Diem. Jefferson's founding sentiments echo poignantly when Lewis quotes Jefferson's mandate to "satisfy them of the innocence of our journey but make them aware of our power." This prompts the Advisor's admiring "I can see why they wanted you guys."

By the time we get to Vietnam, Lewis & Clark are smoking marijuana. York, who was shot in the Philippines by "Hell Roaring" Smith, is reincarnated as a tough Army Sergeant and Sacajawea, the Indian guide who inspired many tender thoughts in Clark and was lost back in Cuba, is lost again as a Vietnamese girl. However, the woman who moves so exquisitely in a djellaba when Lewis & Clark meet Ahmed Chalaby in Iraq has a suspiciously familiar grace and Chalabi compares the mysteries of the woman's veil to those useful rumors that are so much more fascinating than boring facts. A Colin Powell/Donald Rumsfeld confrontation rehashes familiar postures of the vulgar and overbearing Rummy (Randy Oglesby) and the helpless Powell (Eugene Lee). Lewis died in Natchez Trace but in Schenkkan's play, he gets the last word: When Sacagawea quotes Jefferson's promise "No wrong will ever be done to you by our nation" he dreamily responds with "He had a real way with words, didn't he?"

Schenkkan's gift for character has made Lewis & Clark distinct empathetic individuals. Jeffrey Nordling's awkward, sensitive, traditionally honorable Clark contrasts well with James Barbour's more charismatic and loquacious and more vulnerable to corruption Lewis who, ultimately, does not survive. Generally considered a suicide by historians, in Schenkkan's version that suicide is caused by disillusion.

The ensemble includes Tess Lina who plays all the women's roles with dignity and grace. The versatile Eugene Lee embodies York in all his incarnations though the centuries. He projects the supressed resentfulness of the slave, the obliging sex object to amazed and delighted Indian squaws, a tough Vietnam War sergeant, and a powerful and frustrated Colin Powell. Tony Amendola plays villains with the callous smile and suave charm of the quintessential Ugly American. The program doesn't fully list the roles played by each actor but all showed vivid versatility.

Director Gregory Boyd keeps the action fluid and powerful, balancing Schenkkan's accents of humor and rage. Large bags labeled "Badger", "Bird", and, ultimately, "Soldier" fall to the stage when each shot is fired, making death a presence, but not a distraction.

Howell Binkley's lighting design makes Jeff Cowie's striped backdrop morph into depths and textures. Judith Dolan extensive costumes are realistic and use color well, studding the woodsmen's beige buckskins with colors from Sally Hemmings' dress to Akmed Chalabi's robes.

Schenkkan threads the odyssey with such contemporary quotes as "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" , "Too many chiefs, not enough Indians", "Never apologize, never explain." They sound like jarring clichés at first but, like Jefferson's mandate, they ultimately justify the playwright's tapestry of illuminating the past by seeing it through contemporary eyes and clarifying the present by revealing the cold eyes beneath the vision.

Some of the verbatim excerpts from Jefferson, Lewis & Clark get a little wordy and the excerpts of American atrocities are familiar ones, as is the Sally Hemmings story and the caricatures of Rumsfeld and Powell

Even though their source was willfully obtuse, what's memorable is the inspiration of Jefferson's words and how those words, like hope, continue to inspire. Although Schenkkan's play ends on an ironic note, his words, like Thomas Jefferson's, resonate with possibility and the importance of pursuing it with vision and clarity.

Playwright: Robert Schenkkan
Director: Gregory Boyd
Cast: Jeffrey Nordling (Clark), James Barbour (Lewis), Eugene Lee (York), Morgan Rusler (Jefferson, Big White, others), Tess Lina (Sally Hemmings, Sacajawea, others), Randy Oglesby (Durien, Hugh McCracken, others), Tony Amendola (Black Buffalo, Charbonneau, others), Ruben C. Gonzalez (Crow at Rest, others), Ty Mayberry (Jefferson Aide, others), Roy Abramsohn (Jefferson Aide, others)
Set Design: Jeff Cowie
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
Costume Design: Judith Dolan
Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Hair & Wig Design: Carol F. Doran
Fight Direction: Steve Rankin
Projections: Marc I. Rosenthal
Running Time: Two and a half hours with one intermission
Running Dates: December 12, 2005 to January 22, 2006.
Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Ph: (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on December 12.

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