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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