Mind at Work

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.

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