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Explorer's bumpy journey leads to Iraq.



LOS ANGELES A Center Theater Group presentation of a play in two acts by Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Gregory Boyd. Set, Jeff Cowie; costumes, Judith Dolan; lighting, Howell Binkley; music and sound, John Gromada; projections, Marc I. Rosenthal; fight direction, Steve Rankin; production stage manager, Mary K Klinger. Opened, reviewed Dec. 11, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
Capt. William Clark              Jeffrey Nordling
Capt. Meriwether
   Lewis                            James Barbour
York                                   Eugene Lee

With: Morgan Rusler, Tess Lina, Randy Oglesby, Tony Amendola, Ruben C. Gonzalez, Ty Mayberry, Roy Abramsohn

It is the playwright's job to look at the world and craft it into drama, so nobody can blame Robert Shenkkan, who won the Pulitzer for "The Kentucky Cycle," for sending early-American explorers Lewis and Clark on a theatrical time-bending journey that ends in contempo Iraq. But his take on the conflict between our nation's stated ideals and its frequently questionable behavior comes off as a clever political essay masquerading as a play. "Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates," world-preeming at the Taper, makes its points well enough, but then belabors them, resulting in a work that's dull, both as an instrument to dissect history and as entertainment.

Shenkkan has compared his play to "Huck Finn meets 'Heart of Darkness,'" and that about captures the work's tonal structure. At the start, the dry, fact-focused William Clark (Jeffrey Nordling) and his more colorful partner, Meriwether Lewis (James Barbour), take their charge from Thomas Jefferson and form the Corps of Discovery, full of positive intentions: learning about the inhabitants of America's newly acquired land and fostering peace and commerce.

Blind to their own prejudices and contradictions--Clark brings along his slave York (Eugene Lee), whom he imagines is simply loyal--the two have an undeniable innocence along with their cultural condescension: "Children," Lewis always begins his speeches to the natives, "you have a new Great White Father." They're convinced that they have "so much to offer these savages," and insist they are not like the colonists of the past. In an amusing contemporary dig, that concept is referred to as "old Europe."

Shenkkan cranks out a whole bunch of good barbs like that one, and under Gregory Boyd's direction the laughs are frequent, but the first act feels like one joke with a bunch of similar punchlines.

In act two, tossed by the mighty Missouri River, Lewis and Clark find themselves thrown unwittingly forward in time. They land in Cuba and the Philippines for the Spanish-American War, then in Vietnam, negotiating with President Ngo Dinh Diem (Ruben C. Gonzalez). In each case, they find the ideals that guided them harder and harder to adhere to, and they witness American troops treating a native people with unjust violence.

Finally, there's Iraq, as our thoroughly confused heroes sit down with Ahmed Chalabi (Tony Amendola) to receive his report on where to find the weapons of mass destruction. Lewis and Clark, the great explorers, have morphed from leading the Corps of Discovery to contemporary gatherers of rigged "intelligence," just as the ideals of the country have turned into little more than marketing slogans to support pre-determined outcomes.

If the first act was a string of jokes, the second is all encapsulated political commentary peppered with massacres. Shenkkan is clearly depressed at the state of affairs, and believes Jefferson's guiding principles, even if they were never pure to begin with, have been butchered to an unrecognizable pulp.

But while Shenkkan's diagnosis has potency, the play itself feels as adrift as its heroes. By the end, rather than Huck Finn, Lewis and Clark come off more like the title characters in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," minor players who find themselves at the center of the action with no real idea how to proceed. Their bafflement is tiresome, though, and the concept grinds on long after its cleverness has worn away.

While a highly nimble ensemble plays the host of people Lewis and Clark encounter, the play feels like a series of costume changes in support of an idea, rather than an involving work of artistic imagination.
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Title Annotation:Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates
Author:Oxman, Steven
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Dec 26, 2005
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