The Booth Family:
Tragedians On And Off
Our American Hamlet
The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
The world premiere of Our American Hamlet now playing at the Sorenson Center for the Arts at Babson College in Wellesley is a fascinating and intriguing look at a family that would have been remembered more for producing two of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the 19th Century, had it not been for actions of John Wilkes Booth who gained infamy by assassinating Abraham Lincoln. His words “Sic semper tyrannis”, shouted on the stage at Ford’s Theater that April night would become one of the most remembered lines in theatre history. It would also cast a shadow over the Booth name, one that had survived scandals but nothing compared to this horrible deed. It is against this backdrop the play unfolds, and it is an interesting one.
In Jake Broder’s play we get to see all of the Booths in their greatness, their near madness, and their rivalries. It is a complicated story that Mr. Broder makes easy to follow by using the character of Adam Badeau, which he plays, as the narrator and as a friend of Edwin’s. He is very effective in keeping everything in perspective.
The play opens with Mr. Broder taking the stage next to a ghost light. He sets the action with a speech that is reminiscent of the opening scene of Henry V. We then see Edwin Booth as he is preparing back stage for his first performance since his brother’s infamous deed. Much of the play takes place backstage as the action moves to the past and the family history is told.
The Booth story is both fascinating and intriguing, one of great success and much pain. Junius Brutus Booth, the family patriarch, is a man with a love for his liquor who appears to be bordering at times on madness. He is played by Will Lyman who takes the role to the edge without allowing it to slip into caricature. Mr. Lyman, who is one of Boston’s great actors, lives up to his reputation in this role.
As I watched Jacob Fishel in the role of Edwin Booth I was thinking what a challenge it must be to portray a man who is considered to be one of the greatest actors of all time. Mr. Fishel does not appear to be at all intimidated by this and is a joy to watch. The back and forth between Edwin and Junius is sprinkled with lines from Hamlet that are never overplayed and always appropriate to the action. Edwin spent years dealing with his father’s mood changes and alcoholism as well as verbal abuse. He also spent this time observing his father and learning the craft of acting. When the opportunity arose he was ready. Mr. Fishel and Mr. Lyman are at times intense in their roles opposite each other, an intensity that drives the action.
Joe Frias brings us a John Wilkes who has much youthful confidence but is lacking in the talent his brother and father possess. Mr. Frias does a fine job in showing the bitterness that develops as John becomes frustrated and then made to feel inadequate by Edwin who not only overshadows him on the stage but also has a penchant for making him feel inferior. How much all of this played into the madness that drove him to assassinate the president is something we will never know.
Brother June (Kelby Akin), sister Asia (Lucy Davenport), and mother Mary Ann Holmes (Maureen Keiller) are the rest of the family. June owns a theatre in California, Asia marries the owner of a theatre not for love but because it will help advance Edwin’s career, and Mary encourages John in his desires to make a career on the stage while at the same time throwing guilt onto Edwin.
Steven Maler has done a fine job directing this original piece of theatre. It is interesting to have scenes where we, the audience, get to sit backstage looking out at a theater while the actors perform scenes from Shakespeare and watch from behind as they take their bows or have their breakdowns. There is even a bit of Our American Cousin performed. The final scene is a wonderful piece of theatre that overlaps the Hamlets and the Booths. It is very interesting to see.
Our American Hamlet is an evening of wonderful theatre and should not be missed. You will enjoy, learn much, and leave asking many what if questions. The voices of the actors in this production are like music. They are clear and resonant. A joy to hear.
Putting on a new play is a risk for any theatre company and the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company is to be commended for staging this work. I highly recommend Our American Hamlet, you will not be disappointed.
Our American Hamlet
By Jake Border
Directed by Steven Maler
Through April 2nd at the Sorenson Center for the Arts
Babson College, Wellesley, MA
A note: Wellesley is not on another planet. The Sorenson Theater is very easy to find using GPS. There is plenty of free parking, and the theater is very comfortable with plenty of leg room. The Commonwealth Shakespeare has partnered with Babson College and is now able to stage productions all year long in addition to their free Shakespeare on the Common every summer.