BACK STAGE WEST
October 24, 2002
at the Colony Theatre
Does America bring peace or a sword? The question is as pressing today, with the looming war in Iraq, as it has been since English and Dutch settlers first alighted on the continent's Eastern shores. The American answer, of course, is that this is a false opposition: We bring peace with a sword, or, more precisely, a whole lot of firepower. Might serves right; we are Jesus with a gun.
That absurd, tragic image--the man of peace packing heat--is at the heart of Leon Martell's epic world-premiere narrative, Bea[u]tiful in the Extreme, and it's to Martell's great credit that it sticks with us in a deep, complicated way. In Meriwether Lewis, Martell has found and heightened a recognizable archetype: the lone American dreamer whose ambitions always outdo his achievements, whose high ideals always shortchange his mundane reality. In exploring and mapping a route to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-1806 with his reliable colleague, William Clark, and two dozen others, Lewis didn't just make history--he unleashed it on an unsuspecting continent, and he quickly grew to hate what he'd done.
Using the framing device of Lewis' last few days--en route to Washington, D.C., in 1809 and ruefully paging through his yellowed expedition journals--Martell deftly weaves strands of back story, exposition, dates and names, longitudes and latitudes. This kind of time-splicing infotainment is a lot tougher than it looks, and Martell--abetted by director David Rose's sure hand and a versatile cast of 10--pulls it off surpassingly well, skimping on neither the info nor the entertainment. Credit must go to Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's elemental distressed-wood scenic design, David Flad's bolt-clear lighting design, and Michael Hooker's evocative sound design for taking us along the journey and back by the most unobtrusive and transparent of theatrical means. The second act's rousing, climactic descent down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast could not be simpler, more primal, or more exhilarating.
As Lewis, Donald Sage Mackay is an inspired choice; as he proved as Pip in A Noise Within's Great Expectations, he doesn't need to work to convey decency, or the terrible toll of possessing it in a harsh, indecent world. Clark is necessarily a less dramatic figure; Tony Maggio plays him with the sort of hard-won, clear-eyed loyalty that one imagines made Clark so indispensable. Kenneth Martines manages the trick of making Thomas Jefferson seem both glib and searching, as brilliant as he is ambivalent. DeLanna Studi is often bluntly effective as Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian guide who figured heavily in the expedition and surfaces again in Lewis' conscience, and Patrick Huey is quietly poised as York, Clark's "valet" slave. Tom Dugan, Blaise Messinger, and Kevin Symons essay outsize rogues with flair, both comic and fearsome, while Jon Palmer does the same with his usual subtle deadpan. Andrew David James acquits himself well as the obligatory naif.
In the end, it is not the play's by-now-conventional "revisionist" take on Manifest Destiny that haunts us but its gathering sense of tragic inevitability--the crash course we all sail on when we use the great American ideals of peace, prosperity, and liberty as our map, only to run smack into the shoals of our bloody history and its living present. A heroic quest or a fool's errand? Perhaps both. We are all of us in that same tilted boat with Lewis and his crew.
"Bea[u]tiful in the Extreme," presented by the Colony Theatre Company at the Colony Theatre, 555 North Third St., Burbank. Fri. 8 p.m. Sat. 3 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Oct. 19-Nov. 17. $22-28. (818) 558-7000.