The Tragedian is an original play written and performed by Rodney Lee Rogers, a co-founder of PURE Theatre. He first got the idea for the monologue during a party at Blue Bicycle Books. He felt pressured to buy something since he’d been invited. So he picked the first thing that drew his eye: a biography of Edwin Booth, a celebrated stage actor of the 19th century who had first performed Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the tender age of 19, “way too young to be doing Hamlet,” Rogers’ told me during a quick chat yesterday.
Edwin was also the older brother of actor John Wilkes Booth, the man who killed President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Edwin vowed never to perform again after his brother disgraced the family name, but within two years of the assassination, Edwin was back on stage, reprising his signature role as Hamlet.
Rogers’ Tragedian takes place just before Edwin’s ends his self-imposed hiatus and recalls the tragic actor’s life beginning at 19, when he first defied his tyrannical father by becoming the man no teenager was supposed to be, the dark prince Hamlet. William Bryan, our chief theater critic, went to see the play during its opening last night. He sent us the following review. The play runs tonight, Saturday, Jan. 24, 26-27, 30-31, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 1-2, 7:30 p.m. —J.S.
Thus Always to Hamlet
A fantastic one-man show for theater lovers
BY WILLIAM BRYAN
Take away their home, extinguish their lights, remove their stage, and still PURE Theatre manages to overcome and present incredible works of art.
Their latest creation, hosted in an empty church vestibule, is lit from below by a string of dim, flickering, portable footlights, and from above via a single Fresnel that hangs forlornly as if looking for its lost brethren.
The stage is a bare hardwood floor. The set comprises nothing more than a dressing table, a box frame on wheels, and a single red chair. It is in this most stark environment that PURE’s premiere of The Tragedian came to life for 80 enthralling minutes.
This is theater for theater lovers.
The general public might be overwhelmed by the play’s historic nature and frequent obvious and subtle Shakespearean references, but that is their loss. Like other one-man shows, its creator, Rodney Lee Rogers, performs this premiere, and that is the best way to see such creations.
Unlike Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain or Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol, the subject of Rogers’ one-man show, Edwin Booth, is hardly well known. It is this unfamiliarity with the older brother of Lincoln’s assassin that will disinterest some theater-goers. Again, that’s their loss.
That’s absolutely the worst thing that can be said of this production.
Rogers, PURE’s cofounder and resident playwright, is mesmerizing as the elder Booth. While the life of Edwin’s infamous brother, John Wilkes, has been thoroughly investigated, what is not as well known is that Edwin was considered the superior actor. Following in his father’s footsteps, Edwin took on Shakespeare’s strong leading men, but rebelled against his father’s strong and bombastic style. Rogers captures the nature of this intimate relationship so well that at times he seems to be accompanied on stage by Booth’s father, brother, wife, and friends.
As Booth travels the world, from Hawaii to Australia, from Europe and back home again, Rogers’ ability to bring his audience with him, while performing snippets of Hamlet, Richard III, or even Romeo and Juliet, is magical.
Using a curtain to separate the vestibule from the church sanctuary, allowing the latter to become the stages upon which Booth performed, is a stroke of genius. The stage becomes transformed as needed into living history.
The show’s one major set piece — a frame of a box on wheels — becomes in turn a coffin, a train cabin, a stage, or even a gallows.
Rogers’ most magical moment, though, comes when a large red throw, which also has many uses, becomes Booth’s newborn daughter, bundled in a blanket. Watching Rogers walk around with that bundle, we witness a father fall in love with his new child. It is an exemplary moment of stage magic.
There’s a lot of Shakespeare quoted throughout the performance, including numerous repetitions of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, which is presented differently at different moments in Booth’s life.
Never does the soliloquy itself become boring or redundant, and Rogers’ delivery of all of the Bard’s lines leads to the hope that perhaps PURE will stage Hamlet in the future with Rogers cast in the lead.
How much of the credit should go to Rogers for his writing and his acting, and how much should be given to director Peter Karapetkov for blocking and staging, might never be known. For all the solitary nature of a one-man show, it still requires a team to make it come to life.
While Rogers is visible to all, it’s the stagehands behind the scene who help bring the set to life, whether a lantern descending out of nowhere or a rope being dragged slowly away, this is a fantastic ensemble creation.
Seating is very limited for this production, with about 40 seats in all, so be sure to reserve tickets soon for a once-in-a-lifetime creation. Even if The Tragedian is performed again in the future, it would most likely be elsewhere and lose some of the magic they found in this current setting.