Springfield Contemporary Theatre at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza revives their "Solo Play Festival" this year with one-person plays depicting three great American humorists. Actor/director/playwright J.R. Stuart kicks off this year’s festival with a one-man show he wrote for himself, and has been performing it since 1993: The Gospel According to Mark. Mark Twain, that is.
An Indiana native who attended Ball State University, J.R. changed from English to theater and never looked back. “Since nobody said ‘you can’t do this!’, it’s been a fine, fun ride ever since, for about 30 years now.” His obsession with Mark Twain (as he freely admits it to be) began with his discovery, in the 8th grade, of the Columbia LP of Hal Holbrook’s one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! “Once I got my toes in the ‘Twain river,’ I stayed there—from 8th grade forward. It turned me on not only to theater, but to solo performance, to character acting, Mark Twain, and comedy. It encapsulated the world of things that I respected and loved.” J.R. had the chance to meet Holbrook after performances in 1980 and again in 1990. “It’s an absolutely beautiful theater experience, and he’s a master.” So why is J.R. doing his own Mark Twain show? “Because Hal Holbrook is still performing his show, and he doesn’t let anyone else do it! So I decided to create my own concept of it.”
The Gospel According to Mark is in two acts, and takes place during two different periods in Samuel Clemens’s life a decade apart. Act one finds Twain onstage as he performed his “Debt Tour” in 1895, presenting his tales of train travel, reminiscences about his time on the Mississippi, and featuring a reading from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—“all the things you associate with what you want from Mark Twain,” says J.R. Stuart. Twain had gone bankrupt, and did this touring show for 13 months in order to pay off his debtors. And he did, according to J.R.—every penny, 100 cents on the dollar.
Act two finds Twain/Clemens a decade later, 1905, as himself, in his study. He reflects on his youth, attempts to rationalize the logic of a lynch mob in "The United States of Lyncherdom" and discusses the loss of his daughter Suzy and his wife, Livy. “He reads a newspaper article which tells him that it’s happened in Missouri. Missouri is one of the states that have fallen. Certain of Missouri’s children have joined the Lynchers, and the smirch is upon the rest of the state,” J.R. Stuart says. “It’s fascinating. It really brings to light things that we still need to focus on in this country, so it’s still entirely relevant. It’s incredibly powerful. And believe or not, there are some laughs in that section as well. After all, it is Twain! There is a world of laughter, of sharp wit, of social commentary, and gentle sweetness and love in this show. My take on it is, in the first act you get to see ‘Mark Twain’; in the second act you get to see Samuel Clemens, and you get to hear things that he wrote that he never performed on stage. By and large this is new territory for most Twain aficionados.”
Given the now-iconic stature of Hal Holbrook’s interpretation of Mark Twain, which he first introduced to audiences in 1954—a show he continues performing to this day, at age 91(!)--how does J.R. avoid Holbrook’s influence on his own portrayal of Twain? It hasn’t been easy. “I can hear Holbrook’s voice resonating in my head constantly. But about 15 years ago I went, ‘You’ve got to silence that voice, because this has got to be your own Twain. This is J.R.’s Twain. And I hope it reverberates for everyone.”
J.R. says that in addition to Mark Twain, he also “obsesses” over iconic American entertainers such as Bert Lahr, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, and Buster Keaton. Two other legendary performers he says he “obsesses” over are Jack Gilford... and Zero Mostel. In fact, J.R. is directing longtime friend and fellow actor David Rice in Jim Brochu’s one-man show about Mostel, Zero Hour—the second of the three plays in the SCT Solo Play Festival this year. Set in Mostel's painting studio on West 28th Street, a naive reporter attempts to interview the famously volatile artist, prompting an explosion of memory, humor, outrage and juicy backstage lore. Mostel is remembered for his comedic genius and his definitive roles as Tevye and Pseudolus in the original Broadway productions of Fiddler on the Roof and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Says J.R. Stuart, “What’s wild is the universality of it. You think, ‘Well, what do I have in common with a Jewish theater actor/musical comedy star? What you find out when you come is, you realize that Zero Mostel’s story is America’s story—it’s every one of our stories. And it’s a joy to see it unfold before you.” And don’t forget—as popular and influential as Zero Mostel was, he was one of the victims of the show-business “blacklist” inspired by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s due to his alleged one-time membership in the Communist Party. “That’s covered in good depth” in the play, says J.R. “And I’ve talked to college students the last couple of years, and I said, ‘What about the blacklist?’ And they have no idea what that is. So it’s very important to be reminded of our not-too-distant history, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
J.R. has known David Rice—whose portrayal of Zero Mostel is uncanny, he says—for more than 30 years, since their college days in fact, and “he’s been an amazingly talented man, and, you know, talking to him, he’s just brilliant.”
(The third of the solo plays in this year’s festival is The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello and featuring Equity actor Nathan Shelton. We’ll be talking to him and to David Rice in the coming weeks on KSMU.)
J.R. Stuart has opening weekend of the Solo Play Festival all to himself, with three performances of The Gospel According to Mark Friday and Saturday Nov.18 and 19 both at 7:30pm and Sunday the 20th at 2:00pm at SCT Center Stage, corner of Pershing and Robberson downtown. Zero Hour debuts Friday Nov. 25, and Santaland Diaries on December 2nd. After this weekend the three shows will alternate with each other through December 11.
J.R. concluded our interview by offering a shout-out to Springfield Contemporary Theatre Managing Artistic Director Rick Dines, “who is amazing. What an amazing season they have, what an amazing heart he has, and you all should be so proud of this space (Center Stage)—my gosh, it’s glorious.”
For tickets call the SCT box office at 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.