Rebel with a One-World Cause

Or, The Life of the Underappreciated Man Who Brought Us Life and Liberty

One warning about accents: Either do them almost perfectly or don't do them at all. The decision not to give Paine a British accent was a good one but would have been better made for all characters across the board. In his portrayal of Paine's first publisher, George Schiavone employs an accent that careens from Welsh- to Slavic-sounding. The play's second half, a fascinating portrayal of the French Revolution and Paine's reaction to it, is muddled by the clamor of French accents à la Pepe Le Pew. Paine's exchange with Napoleon (Greg Schroeder portrays a petulant and convincing little general) is an insightful one -- we can see the roots of Marxism, socialism, and totalitarianism in a single conversation -- but the second act doesn't carry as much weight as it could because of these faux accents. Ken Clement is engaging and compelling as Ben Franklin (it's no small task to play the man on the hundred-dollar bill without looking like a cartoon character) and German-born orator Anacharsis Clootz.

Unfortunately something seems unnatural about the rest of the supporting players, who appear to be playing out their parts in history instead of inhabiting their characters. Besides using unconvincing accents, the secondary characters don't receive much stage time. The music and costuming are so strictly adherent to the time period that these brief appearances feel almost like cameos and distract the audience from what's really happening. Knickers, powdered wigs, white stockings, and buckled shoes accompanied by the sounds of snare drums and cannons being fired overshadow the dramatic presence of these actors, turning them into stereotypes. Paine's character is so big that, despite the play's cast of ten, this sometimes seems like a one-man show. It would have been interesting to see the characters dressed in subtler garb (and accompanied by music that would create an intriguing contrast) so their personas might emerge and carry a little more of the dramatic energy.

Ultimately Citizen Tom Paine succeeds in making the juxtaposition of Philadelphia in 1774 and South Florida in 2001 a real and necessary one. At the beginning of the performance I attended, Adler took special care to emphasize the importance of putting on this production. Having now seen the play and done a little research on Fast, I understand why. Like Paine, novelist and playwright Howard Fast has been condemned for his outspoken opinions. In the '40s officials tried to ban Citizen Tom Paine from New York City public school libraries. Fast was barred from speaking engagements and denied a passport to travel outside the United States -- all as a result of his membership in an antifascist committee and the subsequent communist witch-hunt that landed him in prison for three months.

History not only repeats itself; it relocates itself. We do not have to wait 300 years to see three different renegades cross paths on one stage: Paine, Fast, and Adler, who was one of the first and most vehement voices to stand up against Miami-Dade County's Cuba ordinance, which prohibited the use of county funds or facilities to present Cuban artists and their affiliates.

Ironically the radical Paine, who has all but been erased from American history, seems to be making a comeback. Jon Katz of Wired magazine claims: "Thomas Paine was one of the first journalists to use media as a weapon against the entrenched power structure. He should be resurrected as the moral father of the Internet." He goes on to point out that the Internet offers what Paine fought for: "a vast, diverse, passionate, global means of transmitting ideas and opening minds." I would add that this "rebel-rouser" from the 1700s, a corset-maker's son, was the first to conceive of what today is called globalization. When Paine proclaimed, "I am a citizen of the world; the world is my village," it was not just a Walt Whitman-esque poetic emotion; the statement revealed the core of his democratic beliefs, which almost cost him his life on more than one occasion.

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