The Buckskin Stops Here

Photo by Craig SchwartzPlaywright Robert Schenkkan is best known for The Kentucky Cycle, a two-part exploration of the murderous greed he found lying at the heart of American life. Set along a 200-year stretch of Cumberland Plateau history, Schenkkan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning work, which was performed at the Mark Taper Forum in 1992, didn’t simply editorialize against capitalism and racism; it suggested that, beyond mere economic villainy, something evil tainted the very soil of Appalachia and doomed the best efforts of men to do good. Schenkkan is back at the Taper with Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, a piece that is broadly comic where Cycle was somber, and obvious in its conclusions about the American character where the earlier play was metaphoric. It begins with a buckskin-attired William Clark (Jeffrey Nordling) standing on Jeff Cowie’s broad, planked expanse of a set, a stage dominated by a platform containing aged wooden crates and barrels, a rolled canvas and a fringed American flag — detritus from the attic of national memory. Clark, half of the famed exploring team that President Thomas Jefferson (Morgan Rusler) sent west to size up the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, awkwardly begins to present his report on that long, strange trip — alone, because Lewis has obviously met some unspoken and untimely end. Soon, mercifully, our narrator’s garrulous partner, Lewis (James Barbour), drunkenly stumbles onstage — back from the dead or a hangover. Eventually the story backtracks to the start of the men’s search for the Northwest Passage, as the idealistically named Corps of Discovery mounts the cluttered platform and transforms it into a boat that heads up the Missouri River. At this moment we feel a ripple of excitement as the keelboat slips moorings and its party begins a continental encounter that is as quintessentially American as Huck and Jim’s raft voyage or Ken Kesey’s bus odyssey with the Merry Pranksters. That the vessel almost immediately runs aground is an omen of the problems that will ensue as the intrepid band meddles in the affairs of Indian tribes, blasts bald eagles from the sky and struggles to impress upon the wilderness populations that, as of now, they are living on American soil — all in the name of the “empire of liberty.” As bags labeled “Fox,” “Deer” or “Badger” fall heavily to the stage, amid gunshots, the audience uneasily suspects what might lie ahead — lots of marshmallowy soft political targets popping up in the cross hairs of hindsight. Clark, after all, cheerfully boasts that he has owned his black servant, York (Eugene Lee), “since he was a pup,” and one Indian chief responds to a gift consisting of an American flag and a military tunic with, “What is this shit?” Throughout Act 1, however, Schenkkan avoids P.C. sermons about the terrible white man by allowing the expedition to unfold as an antic collision of expectations. (Enlightenment hubris meeting the flint-edged realities of native cultures increasingly squeezed by their white trading partners.) Instead of a harangue about chauvinism, he presents a witty, people’s history of the Lewis and Clark expedition and of the lofty political assumptions behind it. And, before too long, Schenkkan’s Clark comes to respect the Indian slave girl Sacagawea (Tess Lina), as well as to question the wild promises he’s made to other Indians with the dubious caveat that these will be honored “in the fullness of time.” Above all, Schenkkan reliably conveys the sense of wonder that drove the men onward beneath sun and stars, onward to embrace the endless wilderness as a land of opportunity that had nothing in common with the black forests of European superstition. Perhaps, to the surveyors, this meant the opportunity to cut down that wilderness, but here that belief is artfully muted. If Schenkkan had written this in the vein of The Kentucky Cycle, the Corps of Discovery would’ve looked more like the Corpse of Discovery, a political Donner Party of white supremacists laying waste to Arcadian societies. The going gets tough, however, once Act 1 ends with the appearance of a Spanish soldier who challenges the trek’s progress. Throughout the show’s first half, we’ve been following our antiheroes’ Butch Cassidy–Sundance Kid exploits with glee as they stopped off at various trading posts and had their sense of national destiny gently punctured. But with Act 2, the Corps of Discovery starts time-traveling through the future. And not just anywhere, for Lewis and Clark seem to be programmed to enter key scenes of American military adventures, beginning with our imperial tiff with Spain over Cuba, moving to Theodore Roosevelt’s bloody subjugation of the Philippines and on to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and, yes, to a meeting with Ahmad Chalabi (Tony Amendola) and all the happiness that will bring us in Iraq. Here, as we move away from the unmapped grasslands and idealistic prose of Lewis and Clark’s actual journals (which are sometimes quoted), and move into terra cognita, Schenkkan’s tone becomes completely his own, and it is not always the subtlest. Part of the problem with Schenkkan’s time-bend in the river is the quotidian fact that there’s not even a cursory explanation for this warp (Did the expedition wander into the Bermuda Triangle? Did Lewis buy a bad batch of laudanum?), and, while our men still imagine themselves to be operating in the age of Jefferson, they don’t seem very curious as to why they are speaking to characters dressed in 1960s business suits. Worse, though, the dialogue suddenly stops anticipating contemporary America and begins analyzing it. U.S. complicity in the murders of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother is rehashed, and a scene between Donald Rumsfeld (Randy Oglesby) and Colin Powell (also played by Lee) is a caricature conversation between the man everyone loves to hate and the spineless secretary of state who Schenkkan clearly believes is a paragon of principle. Despite their number, the flaws in Euphrates are not fatal. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally preaching to the choir, because sometimes the choir needs reminding of just why it is singing. At the end of two hours of stage time, Schenkkan’s play has still stirred within us an appreciation of lost American innocence and an understanding of how it got lost. There are traces of Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge and Arthur Kopit’s Indians here, but this tale of Lewis and Clark is funnier and more provocative than these earlier works. Euphrates could have been a complete downer, but the Taper production is thoroughly in tune with Schenkkan’s beliefs even as it makes more palatable some of his talkier moments. As an astute scenarist, director Gregory Boyd packages controversial ideas with a showman’s love of surprise. His agile, multi-roled ensemble flawlessly runs through its paces in Judith Dolan’s evocative costumes. This isn’t an easy show for its leads, competing, as they are, with a large cast and the playwright’s polemics. Still, Nordling and Barbour make a magnetic pair. Nordling’s Clark, sensitive and tentative, is the man we identify with, while Barbour’s freewheeling Lewis is the guy whose life we fantasize living, even when its enormity drives him to suicide. Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, despite its many difficulties, is an important work, even if that importance proves temporary. It appears against a flat horizon of nearly universal artistic and political silence regarding America’s Iraqi adventure and its garrisoning of the world with military bases. When Harold Pinter, in a prerecorded speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, denounced U.S. policy a few weeks ago, The New York Times was virtually alone in covering Pinter’s outraged comments. Neither the Washington Post nor the Los Angeles Times covered them. These two newspapers are merely like the rest of a country that covers its ears and drowns out bad news with singsong doggerel. If nothing else, Schenkkan’s play forces us to listen for once. LEWIS AND CLARK REACH THE EUPHRATES | By ROBERT SCHENKKAN | Presented by CENTER THEATER GROUP at the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through January 22 | (213) 628-2772


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