Mark Twain Tonight!

Mark Twain has been impersonated by more than a few performers; among the Chicago area’s most notable are actor Richard Henzel and singer-songwriter Jim Post. But Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! is probably the definitive onstage incarnation of the great tale spinner–and it’s the longest-lived. Now in his early 70s, Holbrook made his first solo appearance as Twain in 1954, honing his act at teachers’ colleges and Greenwich Village nightclubs before bringing it to TV and Broadway. Sitting in a lordly chair and chomping a cigar, Holbrook’s hilarious yet melancholy Twain combines a river-town boy’s mischievous wit and optimism with a world-weary old man’s sorrow at the hypocrisies of humanity–including his own, which he backhandedly acknowledges in autobiographical anecdotes and passages from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Holbrook claims that the two-act program varies from night to night, with selections drawn from 12 hours of material.) Speaking in a voice as crusty as his attitude, Holbrook’s Twain is a marvel of timing; jokes that might produce one good belly laugh in print generate two or three as Holbrook strings out the writer’s leisurely sentences in a quavery “Missoura” accent, pausing to consider what he’s said before capping it with an ironic twist as he probes the foibles of congressmen, lawyers, newspaper writers, monologuists, and other reprobates. Paramount Arts Centre, 23 E. Galena, Aurora, 630-896-6666. Saturday, June 7, 8 PM. $28.25. –Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.