Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Marking the Twains

The Twains Meet! Never the Twains shall meet, you say? I beg to differ, for here they are: left to right top row, that's a portrait of Mark Twain, then the Cal Pritner version. Bottom left is the most famous Twain impersonator, Hal Holbrook, who won a Tony and an Emmy, and revived his Broadway show just a few years back. Finally, Jarry Hardin, as Twain with Counsellor Troi aboard the Enterprise. This role for Star Trek: The Next Generation inspired him to create and tour his own one-Twain show.  He appeared at Center Arts/HSU a few years back in a play about the Scopes trial that also featured Ed Asner and John deLancie.

Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain, was born in 1835 in the tiny town of Florida, Missouri, then numbering 100 citizens, and now down to 9. Cal Pritner, who pretends to be Mark Twain, was born 100 years later in 1935, nearby in the somewhat larger Kansas City. In this centennial year of Twain’s death, Pritner brought one of his one-Twain shows, Mark Twain: Traveling, to a sellout crowd at the Arcata Playhouse recently, for his third appearance there.

In addition to his work as an actor (including a featured role in Robert Altman’s movie about his home town, Kansas City), Pritner has a distinguished career as a teacher, administrator and mentor to various theatre notables, such as our own Dell’Artisan, Michael Fields. He started the theatre program at the University of Illinois, out of which came many of the stalwarts of the now legendary Chicago troupe, Steppenwolf.

Even with unfamiliar tales, this show fulfills expectations of Twain as a wry humorist and observer of the textures of earlier times. One reason that Twain adapts well to one performer stage shows is that he created and performed them himself, in several tours around the world. Pritner’s show pretends to be one of Twain’s lectures, though Pritner also took stories from Twain’s travel writing as well as his lectures. Pritner’s other Twain show is about race and racism.

Among the books Pritner has authored is How to Speak Shakespeare, and while Twain’s prose presents fewer difficulties (no couplets or anything), his rich 19th century vocabulary requires clarity and interpretation. Pritner did that so well that eventually he had the crowd audibly responding to his every sentence. That he looks the part also helped.

In important ways, Twain was the first authentic literary voice of the American West, and even with the pleasing but unfamiliar vocabulary, it’s clear that voice still connects with an audience that’s about as far west as you can get. With his irony, mixture of sharp description and fantasy, his moral sense that related the usually ignored ordinary people to the cosmos, as well as his narrative voice, Twain influenced a lot of American literature of the past century. That especially includes our twentieth-to-twenty-first century Twain, Kurt Vonnegut.

Pritner is nevertheless not the only Twain you might meet. The most famous is Hal Holbrook, who did the whole Twain: the funny yarns, the sometimes harsh social and political commentary, and the insightful stories from childhood. Jarry Hardin played Twain in a Star Trek: Next Generation story, and liked it so much he created his own traveling one-Twain show. Hardin performed at HSU several years ago (though not as Twain) in a play about the Scopes “Monkey Trial” that featured Ed Asner and another Star Trek alumnus, John (“Q”) de Lancie.

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