When Americans hear the words "Booth" and "theatre" in the same sentence, the natural instinct is to recall the tragic events of April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes pulled the trigger at Ford's Theatre and forever altered the course of US history.
However, Angela Iannone's cycle of original works follows not the assassin, but the tormented brother left behind: Edwin Booth. He wears the hats of brother and friend, son and husband, widower and father. Edwin pioneered the naturalistic method of acting, the results of which we still see in entertainment today.
And, in April 1879, Mark Grey made an attempt on Edwin Booth's life, firing towards the actor during his fifth act soliloquy as Richard II. This was 14 years after the Lincoln assassination. On that night, and that night alone, Edwin made an unscripted change of blocking, shifting the target and narrowly surviving the attack.
Iannone's play, This Prison Where I Live, delves into the psyche of Edwin on this very day. What compelled a notoriously calculated actor to stand up in a scene where he had always sat? What forces beyond himself were protecting Edwin that evening?
In Iannone's interpretation, Edwin is visited by the ghost of his departed brother and first wife, as well as his living wife and an assassin under the guise of an avid admirer of the stage. This small cast is truly without flaw. Each character further sheds additional light onto the lesser known Booth. TheateRED's take on the piece explores the uncharted depths of the infamous killer's brother.
At the heart of the play are brothers Edwin (Jared McDaris) and John (Cory Jefferson Hagen). The duo bears striking resemblance to their historical counterparts, at the hands of costume designer Leah Dueno and hair, wig, and makeup designer Eric Welch:
John Wilkes Booth, left, and Edwin Booth, right.
Hagen as John Wilkes, left, and McDaris as Edwin, right. All production photos courtesy of Traveling Lemur Productions.
Hagen and McDaris play perfect foils to one another. McDaris is tempered with his delivery. He brings Edwin's naturalistic style to the interpretation of the reserved character, which elaborates the desperation as Edwin descends into madness.
McDaris, left, and Andrea Chastant Burkholder as Mrs. Mary "Mollie" Devlin, right.
As each of the characters drifts in and out of his cognition, McDaris acts as a canvas onto which each paints their ideal Booth, until Edwin is at last reunited with the one who loves him without pretense. Andrea Chastant Burkholder's pantomime as Edwin's lost love draws out his innermost heartbreaks.
Cory Jefferson Hagen.
Hagen, on the other hand, is suave and charming. His swagger lives up to the renowned character he portrays. Never without his iconic smirk, John always knows how to break through Edwin's high walls.
Cory Jefferson Hagen and Jared McDaris.
Iannone has written teasing interjections throughout the script, and Hagen slips them in seamlessly - never taking away from the plot at hand, but always inserting enough humor to keep the show from becoming a melodrama. The result is a constantly fluctuating piece that effortlessly moves between tension and release, passion and pain.
Iannone's script draws from the quick pace and intellectuality of the classic theatre it presents; characters finish each others' sentences as Shakespeare had done in many of his couplets, and clever Easter eggs are dropped throughout in a Strindberg style. Yet, the playwright tailors her direction to the short attention span of a modern audience. The action at hand fluidly navigates the simple set (by Christopher Elst), masterfully maneuvering Tenth Street Theatre's intimate space.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, as Mrs. Mary McVicker Booth, and McDaris.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, as second wife Mrs. Mary McVicker Booth, depicts the rarely discussed topic of a woman who domestically abuses her husband. Nine years following the death of her baby, Mary has fallen into "fits" at the cause of her opioid usage, Edwin being a frequent victim. Audiences are faced with an uncomfortable reality, and Doherty-Elst brings despair to the wife's delusion that humanizes what could otherwise be vilified.
Brandon Haut as Mr. Mark Gray, with McDaris and Hagen.
As the show culminates in the imminent attempt on Edwin's life, Brandon Haut brings the complexities of Mark Gray to life. While history keeps audiences informed of his intent, Haut keeps patrons engaged in the tale of Mr. Gray, invested somewhere between his truths and lies. The pressure he places on Edwin prior to the Richard II performance is palpable, and as he turns to bashful neurotics, theatregoers are swept into the very real threat.
There is no way to retrospectively regard the Booth acting legacy without acknowledging the actions of John Wilkes. The blood shed in Ford's Theatre has stained history beyond repair. Angela Iannone, however, with each work in her Booth cycle, brings Americans closer to sympathizing with those who sought to better the nation through the arts - and don't we all only hope to do the same?
This Prison Where I Live runs through September 9th at the Tenth Street Theatre. See theater-red.com for more information.