by Carole Di Tosti
Edwin Booth, perhaps the greatest Shakespearean actor of 19th century American theater, remains one of New York City’s luminous, historic figures. His influence is as apparent as his statue in Gramercy Park and the Booth essence in the Nationally Landmarked Player’s Club, which Booth generously founded to help actors network with New York’s elite.
The mystery of Edwin Booth lies not in his selflessness, his prodigious talent, or his amazing theatrical legacy manifested in his possessions and artifacts which are bountifully displayed at the Player’s. Rather, as the marvelous musical production Edwin: The Story of Edwin Booth, exceptionally directed by Christopher Scott reveals, the uncanny elements related to Booth’s daunting personage float out from his consanguinity as a member of the Booth family, whose last name became infamous when younger brother John Wilkes assassinated President Lincoln.
Eric Swanson (book and lyrics) and Marianna Rosett (music) configure the many layered story of Edwin Booth ingeniously using a seamlessly crafted, organic structure. They incorporate key themes, facts and familial conflicts with psychological underpinnings, to present a fount of historical detail through flashbacks and flash forwards. They begin in the present, January 3, 1866 at the old Winter Garden Theater. Edwin is getting ready to perform Hamlet after his 8 month hiatus during which he has attempted to regroup emotionally, and sift psychologically the horror of John Wilkes’ soul-shattering murder of the President on a grander American stage than Edwin ever could have imagined.
Rosett and Swanson have aptly chosen this pivotal cross-roads in Booth’s career. He and his family are reeling from the aftershocks of the assassination; he has received death threats as have his family members who were also arrested then released. He does not know whether the curtain will open to applause or the flashes of light and sounds of gunfire as shot, he crashes to the stage floor.
In his dressing room before the performance, ghosts, memories, hauntings by his deceased father Junius, his jealous brother John Wilkes and his dear wife Mary propel him back to momentous occasions in the past. Rosett and Swanson use these personas as agents of revelation and revolution in Edwin’s character and personality. They are the spurs to his conscience as he hangs in the balance, the effects of which augment the growing tensions and mystery of his identity. Under the rubble of a life that has imploded with the President’s death, can Edwin generate hope and strength to move forward and accomplish his destiny in the years that remain or must he collapse into depression, obscurity and self-flagellation?
Rosett, Swanson and the superlative cast who play the Booth family and other characters (Dana Watkins, Adam Bashian, Paul DeBoy, Todd Lawson, Deanne Lorette, Ben Mayne, Patricia Noonan) engage us with moment-to-moment truthfulness. Through understanding the “bits and pieces” of the dynamic family relationships in Booth’s life, we empathize and see into our own lives. We realize that if Edwin is to forge a new path for himself, he must undergo the travail of revisiting the emotional apexes and abysses in his past. He must view the innermost recesses of his being to expurgate the guilt and view the harsh realities of what the ghosts infer to answer the question: did he cause John Wilkes,’ Junius’ and Mary’s deaths?
To elucidate and enhance the revelation of incidents in Edwin’s past and their impact on his psyche, the creators merge life and art, acting and being by recalling salient scenes from Shakespearean productions the Booth family performed, i.e. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Richard III, Julius Caesar. These, Rosett and Swanson incorporate masterfully in the retelling of Edwin’s story. The result is sheer joy. The Shakespearean roles have become the marrow in Edwin’s bones, and the “Bard’s lines are where his father’s, John Wilkes’ and Mary’s ethers abide. An actor’s flowing essence of creation is certainly not his own. As Edwin Booth attempts to reconcile his being, can he separate the truth, from the poetry and the dastardly?
I absolutely adored this profoundly brilliant production. Under the power of Christopher Scott’s expertly realized, detailed direction, the production and all of the designers’ attendant elements adhere to create a scintillating elucidation of an amazing man and his family.
Edwin, The Story of Edwin Booth runs two hours with one 15 minute intermission at Theatre at Saint Clement’s on 423 West Forty-Sixth St. It closes September eighteenth. For tickets, you may call 212-246-7277 or purchase tickets at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/960415
Photos: Jeremy Daniel