Our American Cousin – Just Shoot Me
Okay, okay, before I look like a giant dick, I need to clarify: the title of this review is a reference to the fact that this play, Our American Cousin, was the show that Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14th, 1865. Got it, nerds? Cousin is a wide, wide, wide whale of a comedy that has, perhaps, aged a little more awkwardly than some. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it occupies the space between wildly, rabidly popular in the day and almost completely forgotten now. Almost, not quite: like I said, it was the show Lincoln was enjoying when he got capped. That doesn’t necessarily confer quality, after all, I don’t know what I was watching when CNN broke in with the white Bronco chase, but it is notable, I suppose. The story revolves around the venerable Trenchards, an old English institution, and mainly concerns Sir Edward (Brian Mac Ian) and his daughter, Florence (Linda Schwab Deutsch). Florence gets a letter from a wild, American branch of the family that says that her cousin (title drop!) Asa Trenchard (Daniel Riker) is sailing over to claim his inherited Anglican property from their recently deceased mutual grandfather. It isn’t long before the rank Yank is shocking the pantaloons off the more snotty friends and relations of the Trenchard clan. There are endless subplots, one around the intensely bewhiskered Lord Dundreary (James Knost), a male Mrs. Malaprop, and his gal pal, Georgina (Dyana Neal), who is almost certainly malingering. There’s another involving bad guy Coyle (Steven Lampredi) and his lackey, the drunken Abel Murcott (Kim Curtis) who are extorting money from Sir Edward. And still another wherein the dowager Mrs. Mountchessington (Lucie Poirier) relentlessly tries to marry off her daughter, Augusta (Katherine Mack) to their newly rich relation. All of these play out more or less merrily until Asa lays eyes on a pretty little dairy maid named Mary Meredith (Mary Thomas). He falls like a bowling ball for her dewy, simple charm and, spoiler! Everything works out okay in the end. It’s really no shocker that American audiences in 1865 ate this up with a spoon; the country was still young enough to really get into a quality jab at the English (though Tom Taylor, the playwright, was a Brit himself). Americans have also always loved to Yankee Doodle, to turn an insult right back at’cha. In this case, though much is made of Asa’s horrible manners and rustic stupidity, he’s clearly the smartest, bravest, kindest person in the play. The English are portrayed as variously duplicitous, stuck-up, pretentious, grasping and effeminate. Director Steven Lampredi goes straight down the line with this, intending to make a “theatrical time capsule”, and it, mostly, works. I liked the cheerful, camptown lady, Mark Twainy vibe. The presentational acting style feels authentic as does the setting (the Robert Long House is the oldest house in Baltimore) and the beautiful, beautiful costumes, Civil War fabulous with not a button out of place (design by Ider P. Malnevets). The makeup was, however, not as nice, with some of the actors looking like voodoo ghosts in harsh white face paint. If this was a nod to theatrical conventions of the period, it would have been clearer had it been consistent across the cast, which it was not. The handsome Daniel Riker Ichabod Cranes it up as Asa Trenchard with a delightfully exaggerated, if a touch erratic, New England accent that makes him sound, hilariously, like a goose honking (“my HAAAAAARRT”). He’s supposed to be from Vermont, but whatever. The early 1800s style was carried off most succesfully by Susan Sarandon lookalike Deutsch, who always seems to have a twinkle at the edge of her mouth, Lampredi’s straight-up “tie the girl to the tracks” arch-typical chillin’ villain, and Curtis, whose sillybill, bashful Abel Murcott reminded me of Snug the joiner doing his lion impression. I was a little disappointed in Knost’s version of the famous Lord Dundreary, I don’t know, it seemed pretty flat and I thought the monotonous presentation killed some of his jokes. Neal, moonlighting here from her regular job as a host for classical music station WBJC, shines in a small part that is nevertheless fun (she’s just so very delicate!) and, like always, her singing voice murders me. I initially thought that Katherine Mack, while a lovely woman, was a little past the age where ringlets are appropriate, but then I got that it was a joke and not a miscast and it actually turned out funny. Lucie Poirier has the most LOL moment in the play – watch for it near the end when the fussy Mrs. Mountchessington finds out who all that money is really going to. Props and set were iffy: the devil is in the details and some of the details here (such as actors reading “letters” that were clearly only envelopes) were off. One note: I think that New Old Theater company would do well to remember that the audience’s experience starts, not at the rise of the curtain, but when they first step foot onto the property. I see mostly small theater, and I know it can be difficult when you are essentially a one-man-band, but the lack of any sort of signage or box office personnel meant that audience members were literally walking through the playing space while the show was going on. I also heard several people remark that they had no idea how to pay or where to sit. The historic footlights looked pretty cool, the miserable-looking company members burning their hands trying to light them after the play had begun did not. The lack of basic preparation took away from a good show and made it look rushed to the finish line.
THE BOTTOM LINE: I always give serious props to a company doing something no one else is doing. Presenting classic American theater like Our American Cousin in classic American style is fascinating to watch and a rare opportunity to see. New Old Theater clearly puts their hearts into their passion and with their fine acting and cray lovely costumes, it shows (though they might want to tighten up some of those functional theater-going details). And, if you think it’ll be boring, think again. It’s quite intense to see a fire extinguisher being dragged out just in case the footlights catch the ladies’ skirts on fire. Thrilling!
Running at The Robert Long House until April 19th.
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