You have to give anyone credit for doing a one-person show. It’s just you and the audience, and everything — everything — depends on you being everpresent for the hour and a half or more that you’re on the stage. It would help, I’d wager, if you only had to be yourself, or your image if you’re an established star or other celebrity.
But if you’re playing someone else, a real-life and famous person, such as Neil Thackaberry is doing in “Will Rogers’ USA.,” Actors’ Summit’s opening program for its 14th theatrical season, then you have to be attuned at every instant to the persona of that person. Any miss, and you’ll get called on it.
At the performance I saw, Thackaberry had it pitch perfect. He had the affable, ah-shucks charm of Will Rogers, plus his squinty-eyed twinkle when letting loose with his barbed jokes about politicians, doctors, corset makers, government in general, and the state of the USA union.
Thackaberry was so much in character that when the heel of the boot he was wearing accidentally came off during the performance, he waited a second, and then disarmingly said he “lost a heel [pause] probably my brother-in-law.” A great save, but also like something his character Rogers would have done.
At the end of the play, co-founder of Actors’ Summit (a Knight arts grantee) Mary Jo Alexander quipped that she “guessed it was time for new boots.” Had she not said, I suspect most of the audience wouldn’t have known if the heel business had been deliberate or not.
Alexander also noted before the performance that “every word” (except for what came to be the gaffe) belonged to Rogers. Thackaberry set out successfully to present one of the legend’s one-man comedy “lectures” that Rogers had performed throughout the country.
Will Rogers began in vaudeville and performed in the resplendent Ziegfeld Follies, where he combined his witticisms of the current political and social scene with his sometimes elaborate, sometimes deliberately floppy, cowboy rope tricks. His comments on the country and its leaders read uncannily true today. It seems the state of the union hasn’t changed much, making me wonder how much difference all the political posturing and arguing means in the end — except maybe that the little guy, the one that Rogers championed in his act, usually gets the wrong end of the shaft.
Actors’ Summit’s set for “Will Rogers’ USA” was fitting — a desk upstage with photographs of all the presidents who were in office during Rogers’ career (and whom he met and befriended in many instances), with a roping post with a saddle slung over it and some lariats draped over the posts. That’s enough, for Rogers’ whole gimmick was his simplicity.
“Will Rogers’ USA.” will be performed on Friday-Saturday, October 19-20 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 21 at 2 p.m. by Actors’ Summit in Greystone Hall, 103 S. High St., Akron; 330-374-7568; www.actorssummit.org. Tickets are $28-$30.