Raven Theatre

Thanks to universal superficial education, Henry David Thoreau is one of those writers everyone thinks they know too well. My high school English teacher, Mr. Hyde, glibly dismissed him with a smirk and a quip: “What if everyone–hee-hee! hee-hee!–went to live in the woods?” What Mr. Hyde failed to realize, or purposely overlooked, was that Thoreau no more wanted everyone to live at Walden Pond than he wanted everyone to march to the same different drummer. If Thoreau wanted anything of his readers it was that they learn from him how to question everything in their lives–their habits, their routines, their careers, all of their most closely guarded assumptions about what they needed to live happy, fulfilled, spiritual lives. Walden Pond was just the still point Thoreau chose from which he could best critique and appreciate the turning globe. Other sojourners would find other still points.

This is the Thoreau Tom Drummer plays in Allan Bates’s excellent one-man show How to Grow Beans . . . and Other Considerations: literate, witty, opinionated, bubbling over with heartfelt convictions, but totally uninterested in collecting disciples. “This is how I grow beans,” he explains at the beginning of the show. “You will no doubt decide for yourself how to grow your own beans.”

The premise of Bates’s play is that Thoreau has come to the Raven Theatre to deliver a Chautauqua-style lecture, of the sort popular across America before the Civil War. His advertised topic is growing beans, but, as he quickly makes clear, this is a ruse to lure in an audience that might be scared away by a philosophy lecture. The lecture Drummer does deliver is essentially an abridged version of Walden.

In the wrong hands this could degenerate into little more than a glorified teaching aid, a field trip that thinks it’s an evening at the theater. Happily Bates, a retired teacher, never allows How to Grow Beans to become flaccid or merely educational. Though the play has very little action, Thoreau’s intellectual journey alone would be enough to keep us interested.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” Thoreau tells us early on. For the rest of the play he tells us the various ways he found to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Bates has done a superb job of choosing the most stage-worthy selections from Thoreau’s prose. Not a quip falls flat, not a phrase sounds puzzling, pretentious, or out of context. Occasionally Bates edits a line to make it more understandable to the modern audience; when quoting Thoreau’s Luddite take on telegraphy–“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing to communicate”–Bates wisely cuts the word “magnetic.” Only a pedant would miss this confusing adjective.

Much of the credit for the liveliness of this show should go to Drummer, who proves even more likable as Thoreau than he was as the good but cowardly Reverend Hale in Raven’s production of The Crucible. With very little effort Drummer proves convincing, delivering Thoreau’s sometimes difficult prose with such authority and understanding that its most subtle humor survives the translation to the stage. “We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer the New,” Drummer says, a mischievous smile flickering across his face as he adds, “but perchance the first news that will leak through will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” It takes quite a comic actor to win a belly laugh with a punch line like that.


Prop Theatre

It would take more than a cast full of gifted comic actors to save Prop Theatre’s late-night fiasco The Pot Show, created through improvisation and based on the preposterous premise that eight people–four against the legalization of marijuana, four for it–would be willing to join together in a traveling debate show moderated by a quick-talking opportunist. The result takes forever to get started–we see every member of the panel interviewed–and even longer to end.

Along the way the cast discovers nothing new; the pro and con arguments haven’t changed much since the last time the issue was seriously considered, in the mid to late 70s. And the view offered into the sleazy side of show business–the moderator, Martel, feeds his troupe substandard food and arbitrarily cuts their meager wages–is way too broad and obvious to be very funny.

The program boasts that the show is “freshly improvised every night,” but “sloppily” would be a better adverb. Neither spontaneous enough to pass for pure improv nor polished enough to pass for scripted theater, The Pot Show has all of the drama of an el train stopped between stations during rush hour.

With a few exceptions, the performers lack fire or conviction. Those who seem to know how to create an interesting three-dimensional character don’t know when to stop, most notably Gordon Gillespie, who plays essentially the same loudmouth he’s played every other time I’ve seen him in Prop and Mary-Arrchie productions. As Martel he turns in a performance so hopelessly overindulgent that calling him a ham would be a wild understatement. Next to Gillespie, Mandy Patinkin is a wallflower.

Yet in the middle of this mess Jonathan Lavan manages to create an interesting, multifaceted character–a shy, stuttering, unassertive lawyer. Watching him deliver the marvelous three-minute monologue that makes up the show’s last and most successful scene, I was happy for the first time that evening to be in the theater.