John Wilkes Booth: eternally famous, and set down in every history book, for assassinating the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, in 1865.
Junius Booth: best known for…well, context tells us that he must be a relative of the famous John Wilkes Booth.
Edwin Booth: best known for, ummm, being another relative of John’s, I suppose.
Here’s how this family tree works: Junius was John’s father, and a stage star of his time. Edwin was John’s brother, and also a renowned actor. Junius the father and Edwin the brother are now mere footnotes in history. John Wilkes Booth, slacker and murderer, stands tall as a primary source. But it wasn’t always that way, as playwright Jake Broder (an actor in the play, as well as a regular on HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) lays out for us in the world premier of Our American Hamlet at Babson College’s Sorenson Center for the Arts.
The play tells the story of the Booth family, well-known as theater luminaries until John flipped the script, making himself best remembered for his assassination of President Lincoln. Broder’s 90-minute, (no intermission) play running through April 2 takes place six months after the murder. Edwin, played with brooding melancholy by Jacob Fishel, is determined that his brother’s bloody deed will not define the family name, and he means to express this through a production of Hamlet. Would that it were so easy. It’s a full house out there that’s come to see Edwin’s portrayal of Hamlet, but the audience seems filled with rage.
Fame hasn’t deserted the Booths as a whole, even after John, (played with petulance and a prickly-pear air by Joe Fria) fires a single bullet into the back of Lincoln’s head at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. But the family’s reputation is shot, and the on-stage success that had been earned through talent, accomplishment, and judicious mining of connections has been downgraded to infamy and a certain level of guilt by association.
In his dark drama, Broder suggests that John practically invented the idea of murder most foul as a way to leapfrog to fame without all the bothersome work, skill, and talent that takes so long to cultivate in oneself. If Broder is right, then we as a society will have to own the fact that violence as a path to stardom is one hallmark of true American style. Such violence just might be as original to us as Americans as is jazz, and our notions of the American Dream.
“I shall eclipse you all,” gasps a smug and dying John Wilkes Booth to his father and brother. The father and brother are innocent of murder, of course, but subject to the reverberations of John’s act and the way in which it sends out concentric circles of consequence that rattle like a ghost’s chains.
Plenty of dialogue mined from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and scenes that draw continuous parallels between The Bard’s work and Our American Hamlet will keep audiences familiar with the original work on their toes and appreciative. Those who aren’t familiar with the Hamlet storyline might come away feeling like they didn’t quite get it all.
Also with: Kelby Akin, in multiple roles; Jake Broder, playwright and the voice of reason as Adam Badeau; Lucy Davenport, played dutifully as Asia in the face of an arranged marriage; Jacob Fishel, as Edwin Booth; Joe Fria as John Wilkes Booth; Maureen Keiller, with brisk practicality on one hand and entitled snideness on the other, in dual roles; Will Lyman, as Junius Booth.
Directed by Steven Maier; scenic designs by Julia Noulin-Merat; costumes by Nancy Leary; lighting by Brian Lilienthal; sound by David Remedios; properties design by Lisa Charlotte Berg; Fight Director, Nile Hawver; Assistant Director, Leah Carnow; Stage manager, Jenna Worden; Assistant Stage Manager, Rachel Corning.
A small complaint: There’s no doubt the Sorenson is a welcoming place from ticket-takers to ushers, but one second I was waiting to see the play, and the next second, boom! The play started. There was no friendly stage manager type telling me not to smoke and imploring me to turn off my cell phone. No one warned me in soothing tones that the gunshots I would hear would be part of the play and nothing at all to worry about (there was an insert in the program giving that heads-up). As an audience member, I felt a little un-warmed up. Apparently, I’m the type who needs to be told that it’s going to be a great show, and what’s more, the next show — currently in production and that I’ve got to see — is going to be great, too.
I’m a high-maintenance theater-goer. So sue me.
Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. At Sorenson Center for the Arts, Babson College, Wellesley, through April 2. Tickets $25-$60, 866-811-4111, www.commshakes.org