Stage Review: “Our American Hamlet” — Theatrical Redemption

There are powerful intimations of modernity in the writhings of Edwin Booth’s psyche.

Our American Hamlet by Jake Broder. Directed by Steven Maler. Fight direction by Nile Hawver. Scenic design by Julia Noulin-Merat. Costume design by Nancy Leary. Lighting design by Brian Lilienthal. Sound design by David Remedios. Properties design by Lisa Berg. The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company staging presented by BabsonARTS at the Sorensen Center for the Arts, Babson College, Wellesley, MA, through April 2.

Jacob Fishel as John Wilkes Booth in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of "Our American Hamlet." Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots

Jacob Fishel as Edwin Booth in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “Our American Hamlet.”Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots

By David Greenham

We never see the crucial coup de théâtre in Our American Hamlet, Jake Broder’s satisfying dramatic eulogy for actor Edwin Booth. It is the moment on January 3rd, 1866 when the performer stepped onto the the stage, nine months after his brother John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Broder’s choice to keep that confrontation – with tragedy? with the stage? with destiny? — offstage invites audience members to imagine what might have happened. Ironically, the truth turns out to be a tribute to the redemptive power of the theater. As the Philadelphia Daily Evening Telegraph reported the next day, when Booth stood on the stage in the second scene “the applause burst spontaneously from every part of the house. Men stamped, clapped their hands and hurrahed continuously; the ladies rose in their seats and waved a thousand handkerchiefs; and for a full five minutes a scene of wild excitement forbade the progress of the play.”

Broder’s new play, which is receiving its world premiere by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, begins backstage at the New York’s Winter Garden Theater. Edwin Booth (Jacob Fishel) is waiting for his cue, and his friend Adam Badeau (playwright Broder) urges him to postpone the show. “Are you going to play Hamlet so well on that stage that you’ll get the world to forget your brother killed the President?,” Badeau demands. But Booth is steadfast, and what’s more, as we’re reminded from this lucid and well-researched script, he’s a man of the theater. Where else would he be?

From there, the production winds itself backwards and through Edwin’s life. If you fear a play of stiff 19th century actors demonstratively bellowing Shakespeare monologues, don’t fret. This story focuses primarily on Booth and his family: his relationship with his drunken father Junius Brutus Booth (reliable Boston stage veteran Will Lyman); his mother Mary Ann Holmes (Maureen Keiller); his sister Asia Booth (Lucy Davenport); his brother Junius “June” Booth, Jr. (Kelby Akin); and, of course, his infamous brother and rival John Wilkes Booth (Joe Fria). CSC Artistic Director Steven Maler keeps the action galloping along, and the story mostly clear.

Broder’s narrative is a quick 90 minutes, and it sets itself a lot of ground to cover. Junius, the Booth patriarch, is a miserable drunk when we first meet him, and we soon learn that his acts of adultery, like his drinking, was prolific. It wasn’t until his tenth illegitimate child was born that he finally divorced his wife in England and married Holmes. If you’re a student of theater history, you have read some of the stories of Booth’s antics – dropping lines, skipping scenes, or just not showing up at all. We get a taste of that here, to the point that it makes sense that Edwin, who toured with his father, finally took to the stage and established his own career. Edwin went on to become one of the great Shakespearean actors of the late 19th century, but most people have never heard of him. That’s because he was eclipsed by his brother, John. Broder attempts to examine John Wilkes Booth’s character, and suggests that his misfit family life led to his sympathy for the Confederate cause. Along with that potted analysis, the traumatic specter of the assassination is everywhere. Even the play’s title alludes to Our American Cousin, the play that John interrupted when he assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater.

Despite the explosiveness of the material, the CSC production doesn’t burst off the stage, but dramatic challenges are met. Julia Noulin-Merat’s set suggests the rustic feel of a late 19th century backstage. The behind-the-scenes perspective offers a vividly voyeuristic view of the family drama. Likewise, Nancy Leary’s costumes give us the period without the stereotypical stiffness. Sparse set pieces glide in and out as the need for various locations arises; the lights (Brian Lillienthal), along with the echos and reverb of the sound (David Remedios), create the intimacy and dreaminess that’s necessary when suggesting Edwin’s growing ill ease with his life. After his wife Mary Devlin died suddenly, he wrote “Why do you not look at this miserable little life, with all its ups and downs, as I do? At the very worst, tis but a scratch, a temporary ill, soon to be cured by that dear old doctor, Death.” Our American Hamlet evokes the spirit of the man who could write this.

As Edwin, Fishel is steadfast yet always on the move. The actor is in motion because he’s on stage for almost every moment of the play. His frustration with his situation hits its peak once his rival brother pushes the family name and reputation into infamy. “I have no brother; I am no brother; I am myself, alone,” he shouts to anyone who will listen. Once the Booth name slipped from famous to infamous, Edwin found himself in an impossible situation. A path to redemption, or recovery at least, presented itself when there was a groundswell of requests for him to return to the stage. Thus that moment in January 3rd, 1866 when he returned to the Winter Garden stage to reprise his famous Hamlet. The house was sold out, there was a crowd gathered outside the theater, police had been called to keep the peace, and a riot was expected.

Fria’s John Wilkes broods powerfully, but has touching moments of innocence, especially with his sister Asia (Davenport). I wish there was more of Davenport’s Asia, and also more of her doubling as Edwin’s wife, Mary Devlin. The same is true for Keller’s twin turns as Edwin’s mother Mary Ann Holmes and Junius Booth’s estranged wife,  Adelaide Delanoy. One of the most chilling moments of the play is a scene where Delanoy confronts Booth’s bastard children, John, Asia, and June.

Toward the end of his script, Broder cleverly interweaves the final scene from Hamlet with the fraught rivalries of the Booths, which includes John Wilkes’ memorable promise that “I will eclipse you all.” History has proven him right; barely anyone aside from theater buffs has heard of Junius or Edwin Booth.

Broder’s play is more than an intriguing drama about a fascinating episode in theater history. Edwin Booth’s internal conflicts, his battle with the curse of popular prejudice, have universal resonances. He is a  19th century century celebrity, yes, but he’s also a beset everyman, saddled with an alcoholic father, criminal sibling, and the pressures and expectations of his work. At times, Our American Hamlet comes off as a nostalgic tribute to a bygone time, but there are also powerful intimations of modernity in the writhings of Edwin Booth’s psyche.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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