The lone assassin
An Evening With John Wilkes Booth
We’ve seen some impressive one-man shows over the last year or so. There was Vivien, which examined the life and mind of Hollywood star Vivien Leigh through the prism of Sonora playwright Rick Foster’s script and actress Janis Stevens, which they were grooming for a run in San Francisco or Los Angeles.
More recently there was The Far Side of the Moon, a brilliant piece by French Canadian actor-playwright Robert Lepage, which closed last month’s Edgewise festival at UC Davis.
Now we have a local contender in this category. William Voorhees is back in An Evening With John Wilkes Booth, the one-man show he first presented about a year ago at the small, club-like Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre.
It’s a full-length portrait of a complicated man—reared in a family with a long theatrical tradition, steeped in Shakespeare from an early age, envious of his more famous brother and furiously angry at President Lincoln, whom he blames for the destruction of the American South. Voorhees ranges from courtly, seductive charm to dark, avenging fury, reflecting on Booth’s boyhood and his plot to take Lincoln’s life.
As Booth, he’s also keenly aware that assassins are remembered by posterity for one thing only. But he still tries to sell us his side of the story—comparing himself to Shakespeare’s noble Brutus, who participates in the plot to kill Julius Caesar … not out of jealousy, but to save the nation from a tyrant. But Booth himself doesn’t entirely seem to believe in that line of reasoning—he’s almost always acting, as is Voorhees, and that paradox makes for some delicious irony. The only things marring the opening night performance were one or two moments in which Voorhees became a little too visibly aware of the audience.
It’s an intense and deliberately self-conscious performance—the script demands as much—in which Voorhees goes all-out, swinging for the bleacher seats early and often, as it were. But in this case, actor and role are well matched, and the swagger complements the character. It’s the most vivid one-man show I’ve seen by a local actor in years.
Director Pamela Downs-Hoover channels all this energy around the Thistle Dew’s tiny, almost bare stage. Lights go from dark to darker, as does the mood of the piece.