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.
Citizen Tom Paine
GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables
Through May 20; 305-445-1119
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.
One word about accents: Either do them almost perfectly or don't do them at all. The decision not to give Paine a British accent would have been better made across the board. George Schiavone's accent, which he uses in his portrayal of Paine's first publisher, 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 plays a petulant and convincing little general) is an insightful one: We can see the roots of Marxism, socialism, and totalitarianism all in one 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 later as the German thinker Anacharsis Clootz.
Unfortunately something seems unnatural about the rest of the supporting players, who appear to be acting out their part in history instead of inhabiting their characters. Besides the 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 they 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, it 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 creates an intriguing contrast) so their personas might emerge and carry a little more of the dramatic energy.
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Ultimately Citizen Tom Paine succeeds in making the juxtaposition of Philadelphia 1774 and Coral Gables 2001 a real and necessary one. At the beginning of the play, Adler took special care to emphasize how important it is to put on this production. Having seen the play and after having 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 Forties officials tried to ban Citizen Tom Paine from the New York City public school libraries. Fast was barred from speaking engagements and refused 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: the life of Paine; the spirit of Fast; and the presence of 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 among 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 sentiment. The statement reveals the core of his anti-monarchial beliefs and almost cost him his life on more than one occasion.