By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Where were Howard Fast, Joe Adler, and Bob Rogerson when Mr. Nelson, my high school history teacher/wrestling 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 (starring Bob Rogerson as Paine) reminded me how much better I might have understood those later lessons had I 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 to the north as the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. At first many of our early political leaders did not consider themselves "American" but rather loyal subjects of England. Paine's pamphlet Common Sense was the basis for Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, and he was instrumental in America's defeat of the British. The firebrand used propaganda to garner the support of King Louis XVI of France, among others, and later helped the French fight their own revolution.
Fast's play, derived from his 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 independence activities (including publishing truly traitorous papers) in Philadelphia. The second half of the play deals with his time in France, including his imprisonment 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 Paine as it is.
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 it was the common people who saw him as a freedom fighter. The men in power, however, saw him as a threat. Throughout the play we get to watch Paine match wits with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Napoleon. While 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 stomping across the same stage in knickers. The challenge: 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 recover the characters from a particular era and reveal them in a new light, not merely to approximate history. It is not through clever costuming and stage design that we re-create history, but rather through characterization. Although GableStage's production lacks subtlety and innovation in the former, it greatly succeeds in the latter.
Artistic director Joe Adler has chosen his Tom Paine 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 bored staged history lesson. Fast incorporates the use of the aside throughout the play, and Rogerson has a talent for making good use of it. At various moments he turns and speaks directly to the audience. His Paine confides, explains, complains, and jokes with us. This serves more than one purpose. Namely it prevents Paine from appearing to be a detached, calcified historical figure.
Paine is neither gentleman nor intellectual. He is an outcast, a slovenly, flask-toting hothead. Fast has scripted Paine to be 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 onstage didn't close properly; instead of ignoring it and moving on with his lines, he made a point of going back and slamming the door, just as Paine would have done. It's this physicality that keeps the audience from realizing and lamenting the fact that 90 percent of Rogerson's stage time is spent pontificating. In GableStage's Popcorn Rogerson played a tortured idealist from a different era, with the same degree of professionalism and finesse.
The asides also make economic use of time: They fill us in on history without having to weave it into the dialogue or make long digressions into monologues. Rogerson makes the audience both accomplice and confidant. Early on 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.