By TOM CHESEK
The last time we caught up with Aaron Posner, the seemingly Energizer-driven artistic director at Two River Theater Company was in the middle of a boffo double-extended engagement on Macbeth, a tricked-out thrill ride that he co-directed with magical mischief maker Teller and a show that nearly everyone saw as both an artistic and commercial triumph.
Afterward, while Two River founding father Bob Rechnitz presented his revival of The Glass Menagerie at the Bridge Avenue performing arts center, the 42-year-old Posner returned to his native Oregon for what turned out to be a pretty poor excuse for a vacation. He spent most of March fine-tuning and premiering his own stage adaptation of Ken Kesey‘s classic American novel Sometimes a Great Notion. Then he hightailed it back to Jersey just in time to begin directing a new production of yet another Posner-penned literary adaptation: the barn-raisin’, bluegrassy musical Mark Twain’s A Murder, A Mystery and a Marriage.
Kicking off previews tomorrow and opening officially on Saturday, the show (hereafter referred to as 3M) follows on the heels of Is He Dead?, the never-before produced Twain script modified by comic playwright David Ives that enjoyed a Broadway run earlier this year making Samuel Clemens something of a hot property nearly a century after his passing.
A cornpone kerfuffle set in Deer Lick, Missouri that revolves around an ornery old farmer’s attempts to marry off his daughter to the wealthiest available suitor, 3M is based on a little-known Twain tale drafted in 1876 that didn’t see legal publication until the new millennium. It was part of a scheme in which Twain would provide a “skeleton plot” to a handful of fellow famous writers, who would then furnish their own alternate endings for the amusement of the Atlantic Monthly’s readers. Long story short, nobody bit. Twain went back to working on Huck Finn.
Enter Posner, who evidently saw in the long-lost story a recipe for greatness, or at very least a good time. Concocting book and lyrics in collaboration with the composer James Sugg, Posner crafted a format in which a cast of seven actors is joined onstage by a live bluegrass band in this case, a quartet led by Shore barband bastion Pat Guadagno and directed by Kris Kukul. The show was first staged in Delaware and will soon be on display in West Virginia.
Returning Two River player Erin Weaver is the marriageable Mary Gray in this final offering of the TRTC 2007-2008 season, with Trip Plymale as farmer John, Damian Baldet as a Mysterious Stranger, and Bertilla Baker, Dan Sharkey, Dustin Sullivan and Tom Teti co-starring as various Gray kinfolk and townfolk.
Posner met with redbankgreen one gray day in his office high above the bustle of Bridge Avenue.AP: I have to tell you, I saw Bruce Springsteen play here in town last night a genuine Jersey rite of passage!
RBG: I was going to compare Twain to Charles Dickens or George Bernard Shaw, but Springsteen will certainly do. Twain was every bit as famous and inspirational to people in his day.
He was a storyteller, just like Dickens, like Bruce. We all want to be alive, the most alive we know how to be. And no matter who you are, storytelling is a way to feel that much alive.
But Twain was also a character in his story. Samuel Clemens would pose for his fans with the white suit, the hair and the mustache and cigar…
It comes down to wanting to be heard. If it means a white suit and a cigar are the way to reach an audience, you do it to be heard. Shaw wanted it too. Whether as a critic, a columnist, or just standing on a soapbox, he did what he could to get heard, even if he had to publish his plays by himself.
It seems everyone’s pretty much agreed that 3M is hardly Mark Twain’s best effort. Since it was never really finished or polished, what was it that attracted you to the source material?
A rule for musicals is that often the best ones come out of things where there’s room for something else. I thought about what would make this work as a musical, and when I was at the Oregon Country Fair [on an earlier trip], I saw this fabulous jug band, and I said this kind of energy would be really great for this show.
Well, it’s no accident that we’ve done both Dickens and Twain here in my first full season. As I said, they’re storytellers, and at my core I love storytelling. I love the once-upon-a-time; the story as news, as a vision of a world we’re not really familiar with.
Are you sort of doing here what Twain intended those other writers to do to take his sketch of a story and bring it to another place?
More and more here at the theater, we’re exploring the idea of taking classics and reimagining them, so it fits in with what you could say is our mission. This piece is very much Twain, and yet very much not. It’s a mix of my own sensibility, my own sense of humor. There’s a strong strain of all the things I find funny.
What do you find funny?
Monty Python, M*A*S*H, Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live things from that time before comedy had taken the darker turn that it’s gone through, things that presented a positive take on some difficult issues. One of the funniest things in the show is a tango scene that I added, choreographed by Karma Camp. I find myself lying in the aisle at rehearsals, laughing at what I’m seeing.
So, since this story is more of a footnote to Twain’s career, you have more freedom to experiment with it?
I never try to just replace things. If the work is brilliant, then the core will hold. What I love about Twain is the love. You know, you don’t find eyes as sharp as his in too many places these days. He could see through people’s bullshit and defenses, and yet do it with a kind of love.
Dickens painted much more in black and white. His villains were villains. But Twain had a more generous spirit. Even his villains are more likable and charming. In this show, you really don’t hate the father who wants to marry off his daughter.
Another thing to remember is that Twain was just trying to make a buck. A lot of his schemes were get-rich-quick. He shares that with many of his characters. They all want to get ahead, but they don’t necessarily want to do it in the most scrupulous way.
How does this experience stack up against Sometimes a Great Notion, where you worked with a much more familiar, more together sort of book? And can we expect to see the Kesey show here in Red Bank in a year or two?
Well, the best thing about regional theater is that it’s regional! You get to know your audience; you discover that particular shows are a good match with particular audiences. Now a great piece of theater can go anywhere, but Notion is so very Pacific Northwest. It really belongs to that place, and to the people of that place.
So how’d the Oregon audience react to your turning it into a musical?
A musical? Oh no, it’s not a musical.
It’s not? I thought…
We had a recorded score, but no songs. Just the notion of lumberjacks singing… well, there’s a definite danger there.
Right; the Python thing. Oh well; I stand corrected. So what’s next for you? Do you have anything else you’re wanting to sink your teeth into?
I’m newly fascinated with Greek tragedy. Greek drama is hard, because you’re standing for something larger than yourself. It occurred to me that Bruce could do Greek drama! He knows that he’s a spokesperson for a whole world, really. Bruce is a force of nature; to quote Shaw in Man and Superman, he’s a ‘genius of vitality.’
The Boss in a toga; looking forward to it… and to the Twain show.
It’s a real playground; it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. And it’s a hoot!
Extended through June 8 (when it will be presented under the umbrella of the TriCity Arts Tour), A Murder, A Mystery and a Marriage runs a mix of evening and matinee shows, Wednesdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, seating availability and full schedule details can be found right here.