What is it? In this one-man show, one of Charleston’s best actors embodies one of the best actors of the 19th century. Rodney Lee Rogers has had months to hone and improve his show since its premiere earlier this year, so this is the perfect time to catch the actor at the top of his game in an intimate setting.

Why see it? This play’s been a big hit with Charleston theatergoers, with its original run extended for months. Rogers plays Edwin Booth, a Maryland-born actor who specialized in Shakespeare’s tragedies. The play traces his life and career, exploring his fascination with Hamlet and his willingness to continue acting despite personal tragedies — the most notorious being the assassination of Lincoln by the actor’s brother, John Wilkes Booth. The show blends pathos with Elizabethan poetry, intense love, and terrible regret.

Who should go? History buffs who like to see underrepresented legends brought to life, budding actors who want to see how it’s done, and lovers of minimalist theater (Rogers’ main prop is a box frame on wheels).

PICCOLO SPOLETO • $25 • 1 hour 30 min. • May 29-June 2 at 4 p.m. • Circular Congregational Church,
150 Meeting St. • (888) 374-2656

History Maker: PURE Theatre’s Rodney Lee Rogers revamps his solo show

It takes a special kind of thespian to take on a role like Edwin Booth, considered to be one of the greatest actors of the 1800s. It takes even more chutzpah to write a play based on the actor’s life, then perform it in front of a small, judicious audience. Rodney Lee Rogers has tackled the task and made his show a success despite performing in a 40-seat venue that doesn’t lend itself to rapid word of mouth.

“I like playing to small audiences,” says Rogers. “I like that direct contact. I’m working on a subtler palette at times.”

Like Rogers, Edwin Booth felt it necessary to take artistic risks. Booth came from a family of actors — two of his brothers joined him in the cast of Julius Caesar in 1864. But the Booths are best known for their black-sheep sibling John Wilkes, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

Rogers says that the popularity of his show is a result of being “in the right time and the right place.”

He adds, “Interest in the subject has surged over the past two or three years. It’s got out in the ether and people have latched onto it.”

That interest has been fueled in part by James L. Swanson’s book Manhunt, recounting the events immediately after the assassination in vivid detail. Movie-maker Jerry Bruckheimer brought more Booth family factoids to the masses by using the disgrace of the clan as a crux for National Treasure 2.

In The Tragedian, Rogers allows the audience to feel what Edwin Booth felt as he tackled Shakespeare’s heroes in a naturalistic manner, revolting against the traditional, loud-and-proud acting style that his father advocated. We see him learning and growing as an actor, a father, and a brother in the lead-up to the assassination. We also follow Booth as he makes his fortune touring the world with his tragedies.

A revamp of the play has been necessitated by its transfer from a vestibule at the Circular Congregational Church to the adjacent (and much more modern) Lance Hall. During the church run Rogers made his surroundings part of the story, making great use of the vestibule and the sanctuary beyond.

“The whole production will have an overhaul,” Rogers explains. “It became such a part of the church as I found a way to use the space. I was grounded in that physical space.” Now he’s figuring out ways to manufacture it so that he can put it in any venue.

“With this Piccolo version of the play, I can now create a space, so the show can move,” says Rogers. “I want to get it to where I can show it anywhere.”

Although the playwright/performer isn’t looking to do a Booth-sized world tour, Toronto, Edinburgh, and New York are possibilities, and a run at Ford’s Theater would be a no-brainer. “We’d go up North, retracing his roots, filming as we go.”

Wherever it goes next, The Tragedian promises to delight audiences with its studied flair and its nimble use of 16th and 19th century language. And even if you’ve seen it already, the overhaul will help make it worth a second look. Because it has so many elements, emotions, and historical facts to absorb, Rogers compares it to a movie you can watch two or three times.

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