Betwixt and Be Twain

America’s fascination with Mark Twain never seems to fade. Performers like Hal Holbrook have made entire careers off Twain’s legacy. One Armed Man’s The Report of My Death owes no small debt to Holbrook and his five decades of portraying the wise—and wise cracking—Twain in productions like Mark Twain, Tonight! Yet, despite the proliferation of Twain impersonators, there’s always room for one more. Twain’s shoes are hard to fill. In Adam Klasfeld’s The Report of My Death Michael Graves gives it his best shot. In some ways, I even prefer his portrayal of Twain. Where Holbrook’s Twain is imbued with a somewhat loopy Einsteinian eccentricity, Michael Graves’ Twain is direct and firm. Graves, though, lacks Holbrook’s gifts for the pregnant pause and punch line delivery, particularly with outdated material that still retains only some of its zing. Unlike Holbrook, Graves can’t squeeze improbable laughs from a line like this: “It is always summer in India—particularly in the winter. They say that when Satan comes he must go home to cool off.” Yet, there is still something charming and serious about Mr. Graves. He believes in Twain, and this helps him to carry the show.

For The Report of My Death adaptor and editor Klasfeld has admirably stitched together disparate material, mostly from Twain’s famous world-wide lecture tour of 1895-1896, including much text from letters and Twain’s travelogue, Following the Equator.

Despite his prodigious wisdom and wit, Twain could be gullible. Having naïvely entrusted his literary assets to a swindling publisher and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the disastrous Paige typesetting machine (made obsolete almost instantly by a superior machine known as the Linotype), Twain was determined to regain his good name and re-pay his creditors. The tour that is the subject of this production permitted Twain to do so, in full, but took a severe toll on him. He was frequently ill and was away when his beloved daughter, Susy, died in Hartford of spinal meningitis.

The material remains fascinating and The Report of My Death commendably illustrates Twain’s progressive and even radical criticisms of religion, race, nationalism and human nature. Much of the material is remarkably contemporary. He rails, for instance, against the Philippine-American War, which America undertook ostensibly to free a nation. Twain soon laments, “We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.” (Sound familiar?) He speaks of Americans using the “water-cure” (a.k.a. water boarding) on Filipino insurgents. Twain more than a century ago described its dubious results: “under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him.”

Twain also noted the hypocrisy of the press; he was perhaps America’s first celebrity and even in his time, the press frequently shaded the truth and fueled rumors in its search for scoops. The production’s title comes from the morbid hope of the New York Journal that rumors of a bankrupt Twain’s death in England were true.

The “theater” for this production is the cleverly employed S.S. Lilac steamship at Pier 40 in the Hudson River Park. This unique marriage came about when Mr. Klasfeld responded to a Craigslist ad that offered the 1933 steamer for productions and other events. Seats are arranged on the deck and it’s quite a treat to listen to Graves recount Twain’s oceanic journeys as the steamer bobs gently in the Hudson. The night I attended, lightning flashed in the far off distance. The Lilac’s house cat, Iggy, a well-behaved but curious tabby, wanders the deck and might even rest for a while in front of Graves. Some occasional drawbacks are competing dins from party boats, airplanes and helicopters, and music from neighboring piers. Klasfeld’s utilization of the Lilac is an innovative way of presenting off-off Broadway summer theater in New York City.

Mr. Graves, as Twain, could use a bit more time with the script of a 90-minute production where all eyes are on him, almost all the time. He flubbed a few lines in the first half of the show I saw, and once awkwardly paused for what must have felt like an eternity to him while he tried to remember his next line. Yet, by channeling Twain’s famous irascibility and mischievous nature, he was able to minimize these slip-ups. With time, I think he will grow quite comfortably into this formidable role.

I recommend The Report of My Death not only to Twain aficionados but also to those seeking a pleasant evening of enduring wit.

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