Will Rogers’ America
Adapted and performed by Rich Hoag, featuring and directed by Jennifer Shepard. At Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre, Friday, April 14. Shows through April 29.
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
By the light of Circle Bar B’s flickering dura-log fireplace, Rich Hoag continues to grow into the role of a lifetime as legendary cowboy philosopher Will Rogers. As Rogers’s wife Betty Blake, Jennifer Shepard adds dimension to Hoag’s portrait of Rogers, and brings a strong presence of her own to the production. Film clips of the historical Rogers are also part of the mix, but what really opens up the show is the way Hoag lets himself fuse with his subject, creating a new identity — “Will Rogers” — that’s at once true to the original’s essence and intention, and as fresh, quite literally, as today’s headlines.
Rogers thinks by contrasting pairs: men and women, Republicans and Democrats, cowboys and Indians, and, in one particularly biting segment, Pilgrims and Native Americans. What follows from this tendency of mind is not the divisive, with-us-or-against-us, black-or-white thinking one might expect. Instead, Rogers uses these binaries to question and undo one another.
Rogers’s deconstructive turn of mind is depicted in the way he handles the famous Scopes “monkey” trial, our country’s original tabloid incarnation of the battle between evolutionists and creationists. Hoag turns Rogers’s response — which begins with the characteristically self-deprecating observation that, what with his incessant gum chewing and tendency to wear fringed leather chaps, he himself must be descended from the cow — into an unsolicited call from Rogers to Scopes’s attorney, Clarence Darrow. While the ostensible agenda is to retain Darrow’s services should Rogers be charged with anything as a result of claiming his descent from the cow, the call becomes an implicit indictment of the evolutionists, not as wrong, but as arrogant and too quick to assume that their theory precludes the truth of any others.
It’s not the position we necessarily expect from Rogers, and it could be perceived as disloyal to the liberal principles he usually espouses. But the way Hoag plays it, this is very close to the real core of Rogers’s way of thought. Despite his legendary reputation for optimism, Rogers was a skeptic, and found much to ponder and laugh about when he turned his attention to the limits of human knowledge.
By reaching beneath the glittering show-biz surface of Rogers’s celebrity, witticisms, and rope-tricks to uncover the structure and tendency of his mind, Hoag gives us a revival of something else: Rogers’s humble but conscientious resistance to the unwarranted claims of a species — humanity — all too susceptible to arrogance.