Yes, Mark Twain Tonight sounds like something you might drop your grandparents off to see while you opt for some experimental monologue, poly-cultural movement performance, or avant-video installation. That’s where you’re wrong. Mark Twain Tonight is a non-replicable treasure of American theater, paying tribute (almost reincarnating) one of the funniest, most iconoclastic, most challenging writers in our literature. You will see it. But if you need a bullet-point argument in favor of Hal Holbrook’s Jan 31 performance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, here you go:
1 You will never witness anything like this again. Holbrook first performed a one-man show about Mark Twain in 1954. 1954. His first national exposure came via the Ed Sullivan Show. The Ed Sullivan Show. For more than 60 years, an extremely talented American actor has honed this one role, through untold thousands of performances, gently and slowly revising both his material and his interpretation of an iconic historic figure to suit his own age and the moment of its presentation. It is hard to imagine this ever happening again. If you care about acting and the craft of theater, this performance provides a chance—maybe a last chance—to see a work that is actually and literally unique.
2 Hal Holbrook—at 90 years old!—will own that stage. I saw Holbrook do his thing a few years ago at this same venue. At which time, I thought, well, thank God I finally saw him, because he’s surely at the end. But Holbrook was not at the end. As an audience member, the experience was like watching an old master whip out a whimsical but perfectly wrought sketch: Holbrook inhabits the sly, sharp-tongued, subtly melancholic Twain so thoroughly at this point, his work is less like acting and more like channeling. When he lit up a celebratory cigar late in the performance, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. It’s something to see.
3 Mark Twain is still hilarious. You may associate Twain, the Missouri-born novelist, newspaperman, satirist and polemicist, with a grade-school assignment to read Huck Finn. (If you haven’t revisited ol’ Huck since then, trust me—you didn’t get it.) But in his protean career, the man born Samuel Clemens took on imperialism, organized religion, politics, and hypocrites of all stripes. If you like your aphorisms snappy, your social observations astringent, and your perspective on life on earth strong yet mellowed and wry (or rye), go bask in Holbrook’s Twain.