Late in his life, Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) found himself deep in debt from a number of misguided business investments, principally with the Charles L. Webster Publishing Company. In order to recoup his financial losses and save his good name, Clemens embarked on a world lecture tour to Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand and South Africa, departing in 1895. In The Report of My Death, a one-man show starring Michael Graves that runs through August 22, this trip serves as the narrative material to which writer-director Adam Klasfeld has added aphoristic fragments of Twain's previously censored and unpublished writing.
Like many productions this summer, the play is staged outdoors. However, Klasfeld's intent in this regard is not to recast the world of the play within the modern confines of the city. It is precisely the opposite: to leave the rumbles, shouts and small enclosures of urban life, to escape both land and time out upon the open sea. Or at least that’s what you might imagine as you sit aboard a ship docked on the Hudson River.
Our adventures aboard the S.S. Lilac, the Craigslist-advertised vessel rented by Klasfeld for the New York run of the production, begins before we even set foot upon the ship. Pier 40, the S. S. Lilac's home port, is a large sports and recreation facility located on the river near Houston Street. As we approach the massive, sprawling complex, it quickly becomes clear that finding the dock will be a preliminary test in its own right. First, we peer into an enclosed soccer field, then stumble upon a strange sort of lobby, empty but for one solitary lounge chair and smelling of old paint and dust, then we spot a crowd of well dressed people sauntering toward… could it be? Yes! The dock. The groups of people turn out to be members of a boat party embarking from the same pier, and as we walk through the crowded entrance and onto the weathered dock, it suddenly becomes very quiet, save for the rhythmic bumping of things against the wooden pier. The sun is just beginning to set across the river. New Jersey never looked so lovely.
The S.S. Lilac is a small old boat, rusted and discolored in a charming way. Its tall mast is a testament to its former seaworthiness and the walkways that encircle its frame bring to mind the many crewmembers that have spent their days and nights aboard. As the play begins, however, Klasfeld seems determined to remove audience members from any pretensions of authenticity evoked by the setting. An actor dressed in late 19th century garb welcomes audience members by enthusiastically reciting philosophical maxims and cows them into a timid and uncomfortable state by encouraging some light participation. We sit down in the theatre of folding chairs and find that our playbill also serves as our “boarding pass.” Festive pirate music plays. We, the “passengers,” are somewhat apprehensive about the journey ahead.
When the performance begins, Graves, who plays Twain, washes away all sense of kitsch with the humble growl of his old voice. Watching him recite Twain’s writings is akin to listening to an old man tell war stories. His humor is cynical, his wit acute and his logic keen. At one point he calls himself a 'dead lion' and to Klasfeld's credit, the contrast between his intellectual strength and physical weakness is contrasted wonderfully in the staging. Graves recites fragments of Twain's lecture material atop a raised pedestal up near the audience and retreats upstage for personal reflection, often plopping down in a chair where the backlighting creates a halo of fine white hairs on top of his head.
Twain was fairly radical for his day, especially on issues concerning slavery, religion and colonialism. Though delivered in the context of Twain's life, much of the text of the play resonates with today's audiences. From his bold attacks on the cruelty of imperial countries to his cynical reflections on everyday life, his speeches have a certain timeless, universal bent. The play presents a Twain who questions everything, every social construct, every convention. Like a modern day Socrates, his logic often pushes the limits of abstraction and he is censored for his views. Klasfeld did not create this character, nor compose the majority of the words he speaks, but his seamless synthesis of the material and the version of Twain promoted by his script is both compelling and extremely likable.
At times, however, Klasfeld's direction falls short of Graves' talent. Many of Graves' movements around the limited stage seem purposeless and voice recordings of newspaper bulletins and such are delivered without attempt at a more turn-of-the-last-century cadence. After a time, the whole awkward introduction seems like a bad memory until, at intermission, the pirate music returns. These inconsistent elements create rifts in the authenticity of the play and its setting, jarring the audience awake from fantasy, until Graves can lull them back into his imaginary world.
While it's fun to feel the rocking of the water and a view the open horizon behind the action onstage, the outdoor setting invites some unwelcome interruptions as well. The pier is host to a number of events, one being the party on a garish boat that blasted Kanye as it drifted by during our performance. Another time, a loud plane wailed overhead. Graves never missed a beat: "There's a giant albatross!" he said as the plane flew by, and somehow, coming from him it wasn't corny at all.