If you’ve looked at any theatre previews for the past two weeks – and you should, since there are four concurrent productions this weekend – you may have noticed a theme. This is the first time in twenty years that I have witnessed all the theatre companies in town shouting the same thing all at once, something I will loosely paraphrase as, “The country has lost its mind and maybe we should blame our leaders!” No matter what flavor of political insanity you prefer, there’s a play for you: an immigrant, a witch hunt, some leaderless fools, and a tarnished golden boy. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, directed by Tom Mitchell, concerns itself with this last one.
Willie Stark is a politician in the Deep South, an idealistic dreamer who realizes too quickly that backroom deals and dirty hands are the only things that get results. Stark toes a line that he’s drawn only to trample just about every other one there is.
Stark – as every other role in this play – is being played by a woman. Those titular fireworks? They start here, within Marlene Slaughter. There’s a long, slow-burning fuse, building until the end of the first act. When the gubernatorial candidate discovers some race-altering facts before one of his political rallies, it prompts him to give an off-the-cuff speech that sparkles and explodes. Slaughter’s call of “Blood on the moon!” as she pointed to the sky had me looking up and expecting beautiful light-showers.
That moment also prompted a genuine and startling reaction from Allie Wessel, playing Jack Burden – the lead role in the play. She is certainly a firecracker herself, but she buckled down to bear the brunt of the dialogue. Whenever Brittney McHugh was onstage as the stuttering Sugar Boy, her silent reactions and facial gestures made it clear she was in the moment as the muscle at Stark’s side. And champions of good – such as Judge Irwin as played by Noelle Klyce – always grab my attention; her poise and gravitas were compelling. Each of the sixteen women cast delivered such evocative performances that the crowd burst into thunderous applause and a standing ovation at the end of the night.
Women. The play’s called All the King’s Men. Although the director’s intent was clearly stated in the notes, the execution seemed confusing, even to someone who wants more exposure for gender equality. The costuming choices for the women playing men left a lot to ponder because while they were clearly dressed as men, there were intentional pieces visible forcing the audience to acknowledge that these were all women. The women playing women, however, were all perfectly tailored and coiffed, still exhibiting traditional femininity. It created a clash in my mind, and I’m still uncertain.
There was additional cognitive dissonance for me, because while the script’s words all suggested smooth Southern gentlemanly veiled threats and restrained anger, all the dialogue was delivered at a highly reactive emotional pitch. It’s a tremendous feat for the actors to accomplish, sustaining for over two hours, but there were times when I feel like the play’s highs would have had more impact if the other moments had been slightly lower.
The script can be a little confusing, opening with a hospital dedication ceremony which is interrupted by Stark’s close friend and assistant, Burden, who defends his mentor in a series of flashbacks spelling out how the hospital came to be. It can be difficult to track which “when” the play is in, at times, and the interjections from the present give the scenes nearly the feeling of a trial. It’s difficult to imagine a crowd who gathered for a ribbon-cutting sitting still through a history lesson, but I guess curiosity counts for a lot?
The Studio Theatre is set cabaret-style with bunting, a dais or two, and a large banner depicting Stark creating the feel of a political rally. Since drinks are allowed, I ordered a glass of wine at Stage 5 bar, though in hindsight it should have been a slug of bourbon. Although all the chairs face the front, the actors often walk amongst the tables to three different small stages placed around the front half of the room, so this performance does keep you on the edge of your seat.
When I was choosing said seat, however, the usher was sure to warn me that the front tables would be subjected to loud noises and flashes: a warning that was posted on the table I immediately raced towards, and repeated at least twice more by ushers. I am all for excitement, but if you startle at all, you will truly want to take that warning to heart.
Even though the gun flashed is Sugar Boy’s rather than Chekov’s, you know it will go off. A death scene is an actor’s challenge, and every person on stage brought us believably along with them. This was one of the emotional highs that was unaffected by the rest of the production, and impeccably executed. (This is not a spoiler if you know history or are awake during the play’s prologue). And I’m not certain that the lighting creating the particular shadows on Duffy were intentional, but it was unsettling regardless. Well done.
The evening was one of high drama and fireworks of all sorts. Although you may think the story familiar, these women and Mitchell put a unique spin on it that made me glad to spend the time experiencing the shady underside and ultimate corrupting effect of politics.
All the King's Men plays the rest of this week at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and is currently taking names for the waitlist for every performance. Still, I've had good luck with late-release tickets, so don't consider it wasted effort to put your name in. Tonight through Saturday's performance will be at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday there is a 3 p.m. matinee. Reserve online or call the ticket office during business hours at 217-333-6280.
All photo credits to Darrell Hoemann, courtesy of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.