There’s a lot of promise in a show entitled “The Mark Twain You Don’t Know” – the expectation of an evening of eye opening hidden gems, new facets to an old chestnut like Twain, and deeper burrowing into the stories that have been given such broad brushstrokes over the years that we think we know them because we read the cliff notes. There’s also a lot of realization in the title – it make you stop and think for a moment . . . sure, I can picture Twain in my head. (Or is that Einstein? Or Colonel Sanders?) But aside from Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, what else do I really know about him? I had the feeling that what I didn’t know about Twain could fill a book. Or, as luck would have it, a 2 hour one-man-show written, edited and performed by American-born Melbourne actor Chris Wallace now going on at the Richmond Shepard Theatre.
Chris Wallace is a natural story teller and is the perfect medium through which Twain and his works can be channeled. These days, looking back quickly on Mark Twain’s canon it would be easy to brand it as “quaint” and “old fashioned Americana”, but to allow Twain’s voice to be drowned out by the roar of today’s easily-digestible sound bites would be to do ourselves a great disservice.
Mr. Wallace serves up a great menu, chosen as much for its wide array of flavors as for its entertainment value; and he begins it all where the Creator himself begins. Starting with Letters from the Earth, Wallace gives us Twain’s version of the creation story from the point of Satan who writes letters home to his fellow archangels. Wallace deftly portrays God, Satan, the angels, all the while never missing a beat and faithfully taking us from The Garden of Eden through the fall of man and the banishment of Satan – it’s all there.
Next Wallace moves on to a side of Twain that few have ever seen, nor were ever meant to see for that matter. Like the celebrity sex-tape, [Date, 1601.] A Conversation as it was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors, was created by Twain for a few friends and was only meant to be seen by a few discerning eyes. But, like the celebrity sex-tape, 1601 found its way into other hands, and the very naughtiness of its nature insured its success.
The tale features characters from Elizabethan England (you’ll see Sir Walter Raleigh in a way you’d never imagined) as well as Shakespeare, Elizabeth the First and others. Ever wonder how bathroom humor got so popular? I can’t say how it started, but judging by the amount of time Twain spends on farting in this story (In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore), I can say it certainly has been a way to make even the most educated of men laugh like little boys.
The War Prayer, written late in Mark Twain’s life closes out Act One and is an emotional piece; Wallace performs it with passion and strength. For a snippet of his stirring enactment, see a video from a 2008 performance of “The Mark Twain You Don’t Know“:
Act Two consists mainly of a mini-musical version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Wallace portrays the whole band of characters. He has a terrific ability to swiftly move from one character to another with barely a twist and a song sung by Jim in which he realizes his little daughter is deaf left me with a lump in my throat.
The show ends with a piece from The Autobiography of Mark Twain in which Twain describes the hurt and loss of losing his eldest daughter. The absolute loneliness of this great man comes through in every sentence, and Wallace’s voice is heavy with loss as he describes an ache that we’ve all felt and can immediately empathize with in dealing with the loss of a loved one; we know what it means to hold those last memories close as if they were treasures. The reading is a poignant and emotional way to end the show.
I’m grateful to Mr. Wallace for bringing an endangered species back to the public; so much of Twain’s work is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it and to let it slowly slip away, or relegate it to the dusty shelves of the library would be a tragedy. By bringing Twain back to vibrant life Wallace is not only sharing his own wonderful gifts of acting, storytelling and singing, but he’s bringing the spirit of a great man back to the stage a way that does him justice.
~~~The Mark Twain You Dont Know Wednesdays at 8 p.m. | Thursdays at 8 p.m. | Fridays at 8 p.m. | Saturdays at 8 p.m. | Sundays at 3 p.m. The Richmond Shepard Theatre 309 E 26th St (@2nd Ave) New York, New York 10010 212.684.2690 Tickets are $20 (sudents/seniors $15) and are now available online