James Barbour and Jeffrey Nordling inLewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
James Barbour and Jeffrey Nordling in
Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan jokingly describes his latest play, Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, as "Huckleberry Finn meets Heart of Darkness." The playwright has his two titular characters travel upriver and through time to explore the imperialist legacy that started with President Jefferson sending the pair West to expand the fledgling country's "Empire of Liberty."

The action of the play, which recently opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, begins in 1804 with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the Upper Missouri. "Somewhere along the way, they get a little lost and wind up witnessing some of the less glamorous foreign policy adventures of the last 100 years or so," says Schenkkan. The two visit Cuba in 1898, the Philippines in 1901, Vietnam in 1968 -- and, finally, Iraq in the present day.

To Schenkkan, "The idea of taking these quintessential figures of exploration and discovery and crashing them into this contemporary American adventure seemed the perfect way to get at some of the absurdity and tragedy of current events. The play doesn't focus so much on the specifics of choices made going into Iraq, but it raises much broader issues about the ideals and visions of the founding fathers in contrast to political policy as it is made manifest today." Despite these heavy themes, Schenkkan is quick to point out that the work is "very funny as well as darkly comedic."

Anyone who has read or seen the playwright's 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Kentucky Cycle knows that Schenkkan can take an unromanticized approach to history; in that work, so-called "progress" is often made at a brutal cost. That viewpoint seems to apply to his latest play, as well. While Schenkkan claims that he is "not at all contemptuous of Lewis and Clark," he feels that "they embody certain blindnesses and prejudices of their time. In order to be fully honest about that part of our experience, we need to acknowledge that."

Yet much of the harshest political commentary within the play is aimed at more contemporary targets. The show depicts a number of recognizable figures, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi political leader who provided much of the false data concerning his country's supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. "As we rehearsed, suddenly Ahmed Chalabi was back in favor in this administration," notes Schenkkan. "He visited Washington even as the FBI is investigating him. It's surreal, and it certainly validates for me everything that I was trying to do in this play."

Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates is the third world premiere by Schenkkan this calendar year: By the Waters of Babylon debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the comedy The Marriage of Miss Hollywood and King Neptune was seen in Austin. The prolific writer's new adaptation of The Devil and Daniel Webster will be presented by the Seattle Children's Theater in early 2006, and he also has a plate full of upcoming TV and film projects, including an adaptation of Ben Mezrich's Ugly American for Dreamworks and several scripts for the new Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg HBO project The Pacific War. Obviously not one to rest on past laurels, Schenkkan says of his Pulitzer, "It looks great on the desk but I don't spend a lot of time contemplating it. For me, it's always about what I'm working on today."

-- D.B.

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Audra Alise Polk in Alice
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
Audra Alise Polk in Alice
(Photo © Carol Pratt)

"I grew up doing children's theater but I never thought that I would write for children," says Kim Hines, the playwright who has adapted Whoopi Goldberg's book Alice as a play for the Kennedy Center. In fact, Hines was a creative prodigy in many disciplines, having composed for piano before entering first grade. She might have grown up to be a musician if she hadn't been exposed to theater at an early age, thanks to integration; when she was bussed to a new school, her drama teacher assigned her to take charge of the Christmas show, and it went so well that all of the surrounding districts came to see it. Hines is now a constantly produced playwright, an actress with an extensive résumé, and a coach for other artists in various fields. (She even has a background in graphics and topography!)

Noting her accomplishments, the Kennedy Center asked Hines to adapt the book in the summer of 2004, while Whoopi was performing her one-woman show on Broadway. Her play stays true to Goldberg's basic story, in which a young girl seeking to become rich goes on a journey and discovers that relationships should be valued above money and possessions. But Hines made several changes, adding characters and reshaping the dramatic arc of the story. Some of the cast members' special talents -- including juggling and magic -- found their way into the play during the development process. Don't worry, though; the script was enthusiastically Whoopi-approved before being given the green light for production.

Hines's first professionally produced play for young audiences was titled Home on the Morning Train. The artistic director of a small children's theater near St. Paul wanted to commission her to write a play about Harriet Tubman, but Hines responded, "You all act like Harriet Tubman was the only person who had anything to do with the Underground Railroad." Dissatisfied with the project, she instad wrote a play that paralleled a story about black children escaping from the South to Canada with Jewish children escaping from Nazi Germany to Norway. It continues to be one of her most popular works.

Like Tony Kushner, Ping Chong, and many other theater artists, Hines realizes that children's entertainment can be sophisticated enough to appeal to adult audiences as well. She takes pride in the fact that her plays never talk down to kids. "When the Kennedy Center approached me for this show, they asked me if I could gear it for kindergarten through third grade," she says, adding that she politely agreed to do so while continuing to write in a way that would speak to older audiences as well. "I think this show will make some adults consider what their value system is and what their priorities are."

Hines feels that some mainstream theaters are worse than children's theaters when it comes to fear of taking risks. "We like to think that people in the arts are so liberal," she says, "but they're very, very provincial." In her opinion, many producers only include multicultural projects in their programming to get grants and to otherwise suit their own purposes. "Baby Boomers haven't been grooming anyone to take over the theater," Hines asserts -- and that's what makes good children's theater so important.

-- A.K.

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Kevin Isola, Rebecca Bellingham, and Victoria Mack
in As You Like It
(Photo © Carol Rosegg).
Kevin Isola, Rebecca Bellingham, and Victoria Mack
in As You Like It
(Photo © Carol Rosegg).
Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, calls her staging of As You Like It "a holiday show that celebrates humanity as a whole and transcends any particular creed or belief." Now in its third week, the production is a success with both critics and audiences: "I've had people come up to me and thank me for doing something that feels like a holiday outing that's appropriate for people of all ages," says Monte.

As You Like is a comedy with many dark elements. Says Monte, "I think that people hear the word 'comedy' and they think it's rollicking," but she points out that the play begins with a series of tragedies that cause its main characters to flee to the Forest of Arden. Even in its most lighthearted scenes, the downcast poet Jaques shares his cynical philosophy, most famously in his "All the world's a stage" speech. The director compares the play's bittersweet tone to "a wonderful confection that has layers of dark chocolate running through it."

Still, she describes the overall tone of the play as "joyful and celebratory." This production places particular emphasis on the music; the actors sing the various songs with guitar and mandolin accompaniment. "We researched a lot of the traditional tunes from England and the Berton region," says Monte; for each song in the show, she and her colleagues morphed several traditional melodies into one. In addition, there's a complicated soundscape with sheep, goats, wind chimes, and other idyllic noises.

Monte wanted to direct the play because "I had never seen a production that I was crazy about." She was not intimidated by the prospect of interpreting a work that's been staged thousands of times; "There's an infinite amount of possibilities of things one can do with Shakespeare's plays," she says, "so it doesn't feel daunting to me." Monte's style cannot be described as strictly "period" or "modern," but "impressionistic" might fit the bill: "We tend to look for the metaphorical or symbolic images in the text that will supply our landscape."

Her fascination with the Bard has been lifelong -- "My mom was reading me Shakespeare when I was two," she remembers, "and I already had a speech memorized by the time I was three" -- so Monte is pleased that the theater's student matinees have successfully filled the seats with children as young as eight or nine years old. "Obviously, the writing in a play that has survived 400 years is exemplary," she states. Would she consider directing a new work? "It's hard to find new plays that rise to that level," she says. "I don't rule it out, but I don't go after it."

-- A.K.