REVIEW: “The Almost True and Truly Remarkable Adventures of Israel Potter” at Oldcastle

by Gail M. Burns

Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, first published in serial form from 1854-1855, is Herman Melville’s only historical novel, based on the 1824 pamphlet The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter by Henry Trumbull which Melville had acquired in the 1840’s. Melville disliked his finished novel, and admitted he only wrote it because he needed the money. Today Melville scholars regard the novel as one of the least of the author’s lesser writings.

Israel R. Potter (1754–1826) led a dramatic but ultimately dismal life. He fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, entered the colonial navy from whence he was taken prisoner of war by the British, and, upon his escape, became a secret agent and courier between colonial sympathizers in Britain and France. Along the way he had encounters with King George III and Benjamin Franklin. Ultimately he ended up living and working in extreme poverty in London, endlessly foiled in his earnest attempts to return home to New England.

Melville added a few fictional encounters for Potter – notably with Ethan Allen and John Paul Jones – and transferred his longed-for home from Rhode Island to the Berkshires, but there was really nothing he could do about the overarching bleakness of Potter’s story.

The central question here really is what would possess playwrights Joe Bravaco and Larry Rosler to think this would make a decent piece of theatre? It is Candide without the wit and Dickens without the entertaining characters. Unlike Dorothy Gale, that other stranger in a strange land who longs to go home, Israel Potter neither learns nor grows through his experiences, although it becomes soul-crushing obvious at the end that he has had his ruby slippers with him all along.

This is only the second professional production of The Almost True and Truly Remarkable Adventures of Israel Potter , the first having been at a regional theatre in New Hampshire two years ago, where the director worked with the authors to make changes based on audience and actor feedback. I shudder to think what it was like in its earlier iteration.

I can see the appeal of this play, in theory, to Oldcastle Producing Artistic Director Eric Peterson and Nathan Stith, who has ably directed this production. Melville’s Berkshire home, Arrowhead, is an hour’s drive south of Bennington, and plays about the American revolution are in vogue because this is an important time politically to look back at the people and ideas that founded our nation. How can you resist staging a play in which Ethan Allen appears when your theatre is less than a block from the Ethan Allen Highway (Route 7)?

And how can you resist staging it when you have at your fingertips four of the finest actors to reside in this region, plus a talented newcomer and a company founder?

The waste of exceptional talent, both on stage and behind the scenes, is prodigious.

Josh Aaron McCabe is a whiz at playing multiple characters and is adept at comedy and drama alike, but here he is the one cast member who plays only one role, the title role of Israel Potter, and Potter is a stolid individual who expresses neither joy nor much sorrow, despite living the most luckless and depressing life possible. McCabe anchors the show with a solid performance, but he can do so much more.

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I have never felt that Anne Undeland was miscast, and I have seen her in a variety of roles, until I saw her play Benjamin Franklin. I have no problem with gender-swapping, it is just that Undeland is NOT Ben Franklin. Thankfully she gets to shine in several other roles, including those of various women from the prim to the promiscuous.

A much more successful gender-swap is performed by Christine Decker, who at one point appears as “Mad” King George III. In fact, except for the sad affair of Dr. Franklin, Undeland, Decker, Richard Howe, Gary Allan Poe, and newcomer Robert St. Laurence do a bang-up job juggling roles and costumes and props and accents.

(Did you know John Paul Jones was Scottish? I didn’t, but he was and St. Laurence plays him with a BROAD Scots accent throughout. I was also unaware that Jones sailed under three flags – his native Britain, the United States, and then he finished his career as a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy. Live and learn!)

This is a handsome looking show. Roy Hamlin’s multi-tiered set is evocative and inventive, and well supported by David V. Groupe’s lighting. Cory Wheat’s projections work seamlessly with the set, lights, and performers to create very clever illusions of place and movement. The costumes by Ursula McCarty follow on the tried and true basic-ensemble-enhanced-with-easily-swapped-additions-to-denote-character ploy, and they work well.

There are a few period songs, most sung a cappella, interpolated into the action. Sadly, most are truncated, and Stith has the ensemble continue singing softly under the ensuing dialogue which renders both the lyrics and the lines unintelligible. The cast present the songs well, and I would have enjoyed hearing at least a full verse of each, especially the original lyrics to the tune we now use for our national anthem. Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem was set to the tune of a popular British song “To Anacreon in Heaven” which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of the American Revolution.

The problem here is the script, which isn’t even badly written, just turgidly dull and deeply depressing. Oldcastle has poured much talent and effort into this production. If only it had been in support of a show worth staging.

The Almost True and Truly Remarkable Adventures of Israel Potter adapted by Joe Bravaco and Larry Rosler from a novel by Herman Melville, directed by Nathan Stith, runs June 15-24, 2018, at Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main Street in Bennington, Vermont. Set design by Roy Hamlin, lighting design by David V. Groupe, sound and projection design by Cory Wheat, costume design by Ursula McCarty, stage manager Kristine Schlachter. CAST: Josh Aaron McCabe as Israel Potter. All supporting roles played by Christine Decker, Richard Howe, Gary Allan Poe, Robert St. Laurence, and Anne Undeland.

Tickets $12 for students with ID; $39 general admission; $50 premiere seating; $65 VIP seating. For additional information or reservations call 802-447-0564 or visit the theatre’s website: www.oldcastletheatre.org.

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