Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, But They Shouldn't Have Bothered

In "The Kentucky Cycle," playwright Robert Schenkkan focused on a small piece of the American landscape and the lives of three families during two hundred years of history. Apparently trying to repeat that Pulitzer Prize-winning  success, Schenkkan has very ambitiously attempted to conflate the Lewis and Clark expedition with America's misguided military adventures in Cuba, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Iraq. But here, his material roams the planet as well as the centuries, and he's just not able to make it work.

The material never comes alive, never soars, barely even catches one's interest. The acting and writing are bombastic. The direction is heavy handed and somewhat frantic, and ultimately futile. It's a wonder to me that no one along the way took the playwright or the director aside and said, "This stuff isn't interesting." But that happens sometimes, and this is a prime example.

Eugene Lee and Tess Lina portray Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, among others

The play starts out well enough, with Jeffrey Nordling as William Clark affably setting the stage for some of the material to follow. He's charming, engaging, and a good enough actor. But the production goes astray within the first few minutes, specifically when Merriwether Lewis stumbles onstage drunk and insensible. We never learn why. We don't really like him. And soon enough, we don't care what happens to him or his Corps of Discovery.

The train wreck piles up higher when President Thomas Jefferson is wheeled onstage at his desk, Sally Hemmings hidden underneath but broadcasting her presence to the audience with flailings that wildly disturb the heavy cloth hangings that obscure Jefferson's lower half. Did the real Sally Hemmings service the President orally? Did she do so while he was giving orders about the upcoming expedition to Merriwether Lewis? In any case, why is this part of the play?

Eugene Lee in one of many costume changes in this global romp

From there, we proceed through an almost unendurable 2+ hours filled with lame laugh lines, confusing plot developments, gunshots and violence, overdone gimmicks (How many times can you signify dead bodies by dropping labeled canvas bags from the flies and expect to generate emotion within the audience? Once - OK. Twice - maybe. 50 times - I don't think so.), stereotyped casting that echoes the play's portrayals of racial injustice, inexplicable developments (Lewis' repeated failures at suicide, Clark's and Sacagawea's possible liaison) -- all punctuated by a great deal of shouting and running back and forth about the stage in vain efforts to pump up audience interest, and by gratuitous foul language.

At the performance I saw, at least one father brought his seven year old daughter to be educated about our nation's distinguished explorers. I doubt he anticipated the kind of education she received from this production, and neither he nor his daughter returned for the second act.

Jeffrey Nordling, Eugene Lee, James Barbour, Tony Amendola, and Tess Lina are primary players in Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates

To be sure, there are some interesting elements: the backdrop is striking and serves as a visually stunning screen for the various projections cast upon it throughout the play, particularly a hint of the Pacific Ocean; a few of the boating scenes produce remarkable impact from minimal equipment; the sound design is arresting and powerful, particularly when attack helicopters and jet airplanes swoop through the skies around the Lewis and Clark expedition; and the costumes are well turned out.

But the real meat of the play -- the writing, the direction, and the acting -- are simply not worth the price of admission. There are too many elements brought in and not fully realized, too many plot developments not drawn clearly enough, too many narrative points that are extraneous and/or left at loose ends, and too much action that's unmotivated, unnecessary, unexplained, and uninteresting.

James Barbour and Jeffrey Nordling star as Lewis and Clark

The play offers a full suite of heavy-handed references to racial prejudice, social injustice, American military violence, and our political interference within other nations. It's easy to appreciate this kind of risky material and praise the play and playwright for including so many American missteps in a single breath. But just bringing up these unflattering pages of American history, or even weaving them roughly together, is not enough justification to put forth on the stage this much sound and fury. It's a common mistake to focus on the freshness, timeliness, or importance of the material and miss the simple fact that the play itself is not well wrought. That's unfortunately the case here. 

Kudos to Robert Schenkkan and the whole gang at the Taper for recognizing that these topics need to be discussed in much more depth and breadth, and by a wider range of people. Too bad they weren't able to offer a worthwhile artistic rendering in this production of "Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates."

Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates
Author: Robert Schenkkan
Mark Taper Theatre
135 N. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
Box Office: 213-628-2772
Performances Through January 22, 2006
Mainly Tuesday - Saturday @ 8 PM; Sunday @ 7:30 PM; Saturday and Sunday Matinees @ 2:30 PM
(A few performances have been added and deleted around the holidays)
Tickets: $42 - $55

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