Wednesday, June 13, 2012

THEATER: The Moose that Roared

Photo/Mark Veltman
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, while campaigning against his former protegee William Howard Taft and the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, was shot by John Flammang Schrank. The bullet was slowed by its passage through the folded speech in Roosevelt's breast pocket, resulting not only in a non-fatal wound, but in his decision to go on and give his speech regardless, even as he bled. "Friends," he said, "I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!"

For that lovely bit of history alone, Chris Chappell & Patrice Miller's The Moose that Roared has earned its place in the Brick's Democracy festival -- but the two playwrights don't stop there. Chappell's a sound designer, Miller's a choreographer, and the two are more concerned with the internal landscapes of these characters than with a mere footnote in history. Flashbacks take us on African hunting trips shared between Roosevelt (the flat-out presidential Col. Justin R. G. Holcomb) and his son Kermit (William Weber); these emphasize the animal within all of us, and as the play progresses, Candance Lawrence's costumes begin to show patches of fur, ears begin to point and widen, and characters occasionally snort and stomp.

Other sequences follow Schrank (a conviction-filled Paul Murillo), as he kneels in a spotlight, speaking to an unseen, echoing interrogator: how threadbare and direct his mind is. To round things out, the play also features exchanges between a frustrated/betrayed Taft (Bob Laine) and his accommodating wife, Nellie (Ivanna Cullinan); these are the more plot-heavy sections, ensnaring Jesse Wilson, too, in his portrayal of Gifford Pinchot, the Chief Forester whose firing appears to have convinced Roosevelt to run for a third term. It's interesting, sure, but also overwhelming: there's a limit to how much psychological and physical information one can absorb -- especially if you know little about the history --, to say nothing of the philosophical musings (there's a bit of Shakespeare here, too).

The Moose that Roared is a bleak and challenging production, one that's still settling on its focal points (there is, for instance, an odd coda to the play, and there are a few overlapping sections that are all but impossible to follow), but it's also an unusual and absorbing experience. After all, you don't see many dramatic moments being shared between Hippo-Taft and Moose-Roosevelt.

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