By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Swenson
By David Villano
By Kyle Swenson
By John Thomason
By Michele Eve
Where were Howard Fast, Joe Adler, and Bob Rogerson when Mr. Nelson, my high-school history teacher and the wrestling team's coach, sidled up to the lectern to teach the American Revolution? That war, as I remember it, was a series of lively anecdotes about converting Boston Harbor into a giant cup of Earl Grey and Paul Revere burning the midnight oil. No one ever explained the knickers, powdered wigs, or the Continental Congress. In fact Mr. Nelson whipped through the Declaration of Independence, glossed over the Civil War, and hurried toward the really important stuff: Pearl Harbor and Vietnam. Watching GableStage's production of Howard Fast's Citizen Tom Paine reminded me how much better I might have understood those later lessons had I really comprehended the war that transformed a British colony into the United States of America.
Things your history teacher/wrestling coach may not have taught you: Slaves were openly bought and sold as early as 1774 and as far north as Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. At first many of our early political leaders did not consider themselves "American" but rather loyal subjects of England. Paine's pamphlet Common Sense supplied Thomas Jefferson with a basis for our Declaration of Independence, thus the firebrand pamphleteer was instrumental in America's defeat of the British. He used propaganda to garner the support of King Louis XVI of France and other leaders for the American cause yet later helped the French citizens fight their own revolution.
Fast's play, derived from his 1943 novel of the same title, depicts Paine's arrival in America from England, his involvement in the American and French revolutions, and his last, lonely days in New York. The first act follows him through his prerevolutionary activities (including the publishing of truly traitorous papers) in Philadelphia. The second half of the play deals with his time in France, including his imprisonment during the Reign of Terror and his meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte. Paine's return to England, where he was accused of sedition and had to flee to escape the gallows, is only alluded to at the beginning of the second act -- a smart decision on the playwright's part, as we have our hands full following him as things stand.
Upon arriving in America, Paine quickly developed a reputation as a rabble-rouser and political visionary. His pamphlet Common Sense ardently opposed slavery as well as any form of monarchy. And indeed the common people saw him as a freedom fighter, while the men in power viewed him as a threat. Throughout the play Paine matches wits with the likes of Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Napoleon. Walking out of the theater, more than one person sighed, "Well, we got our history lesson." In a sense every play is a history lesson because it takes place at a certain moment in time and consequently reflects a particular set of socioeconomic, political, and cultural circumstances. But Citizen Tom Paine feels especially historical. It's not every day you see Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson in knickers stomping across the same stage. The challenge of this production is to keep from turning the theater into a lectern or something reminiscent of an ABC Afterschool Special. The ultimate goal of a historical drama is to recapture the characters from a particular era and reveal them in a new light, not merely to approximate history. It is through not clever costuming and stage design but rather characterization that history is re-created. Although GableStage's production lacks subtlety and innovation in the former, it greatly succeeds in the latter.
Artistic director Joe Adler chose his Paine (Bob Rogerson) well, and that makes all the difference in this play's overall success. Rogerson's skill as an actor and Fast's thorough and compelling script together prevent Citizen Tom Paine from becoming a staged history lesson. The playwright incorporates the use of the aside throughout the play, and Rogerson has a talent for making good use of it. His Paine confides, explains, complains, and jokes with his audience. This prevents Paine from appearing as a detached, calcified historical figure.
Paine is neither gentleman nor intellectual. He is an outcast, a slovenly, flask-toting hothead. Fast has written the man as more than just a bit human, and Adler ably follows the script's lead, giving Rogerson a lot of latitude to have fun with this role. At one point a door on-stage didn't close properly; instead of ignoring it and moving on with his lines, the actor made a point of going back and slamming the door just as Paine would have done. This physicality keeps the audience from realizing and lamenting the fact that 90 percent of Rogerson's stage time is spent pontificating. With the same degree of professionalism and finesse, Rogerson played a tortured idealist from a different era in GableStage's Popcorn.
The asides also make economic use of time: They provide historical background without weaving details into the dialogue or making long digressions into monologues. Through his asides Rogerson makes the audience both accomplice and confidant. Early in the play, Paine stops beside a table of men talking, turns to the audience, and confides: "From the look of it, five men sitting around the table of one of the best coffeehouses in Philadelphia...." He then goes on to introduce the members of the Continental Congress, revealing their hypocritical ways and corrupt political ideals.