IF YOU GO
What: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and president Warren Harding get lost in the woods
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through Nov. 25
Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers
Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org
Something else: Free parking across the street
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
FORT MYERS — Henry Ford might have given the world the Model T. But trust me, don't let the man get behind the wheel. He can hit the only deer in the forest at 5 mph with his eyes wide open. And does. Florida Rep christens its new ArtStage Studio Theatre with the (fictional) crash in "Camping with Henry & Tom."
So, what happens once Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and President Warren G. Harding find themselves stuck in the middle of the Maryland woods with a busted car and a not-quite-dead deer? Playwright Mark St. Germain mixes fact, fiction, Caruso and pounded carrots to spin an intriguing - if bizarre - tale that wanders from politics to humanity and back again.
Director Robert Cacioppo offers a master-class in directing here, lifting a scattershot, confusing and often impenetrable script into a taut, cohesive experience. While the new ArtStage might be framed by a gorgeous woodland setting, the play is not about camping.
What is it about? Well, that's up for debate. Strike history; this is no "Sunrise at Campobello" or "Golda's Balcony." You'll leave with little more insight into the characters than you arrived with.
Read it as a shockingly timely treatise on modern politics. If so, ignore the party labels; Harding would be Barack Obama and Ford a representative of the Tea Party. Harding (like Obama) ran on a platform of "change" in 1920 and was the first to campaign widely via the media. Ford's rhetoric in the play, about "taking the bloat out of government," and his anger at Harding's background and political inaction, feels remarkably similar to modern assaults against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Although the play was written in 1993, it feels far more vibrant as a raging, Tea Party-infused war on government itself.
Finally, beneath the politics, the play offers a lesson on humanity (or democracy); the playwright never seems to get it straight in his head what he's trying to say. Through an evening of verbal jousting, St. Germain reveals - if somewhat inelegantly - a view of mankind that does says: "We're not all savages, and that's a good thing."
Cacioppo inaugurates the new ArtStage space by setting the show in the round. His characters arrive with a literal bang; a Model T crashes through one wall, bringing shrubbery, cast members (and a few screams) with it. Richard Crowell's artful woodland glade features rocks, tree stumps and various levels of a tiny hill, which Cacioppo uses brilliantly as a orator's podium. Watch for David M. Upton's fanciful lighting design, including a flickering lantern and twinkling campfire.
Does it all make sense? Not so much. The show wanders like a lost hiker with a smashed compass and a concussion. In trying to carve something deeply insightful out of three men huddled around a campfire, the playwright too often lurches from theme to theme like a flying squirrel flitting through the branches. Characters don't behave in a realistic fashion (Harding howls like a wolf, Ford can't strike a match) and the two-act, hour and forty-five minute show could be tightened and condensed.
Yet, for all that the subject matter can be frustrating, "Camping With Henry & Tom" serves up a thoughtful stew of material for audiences to ponder.
Graham Smith will redefine your view of Henry Ford. Ford might have given America the automobile, but he was an angry, bigoted autocrat with a thirst for power. Racist, supremacist and hateful, Henry Ford planned to rule. Smith might look slight, but he makes Ford look monstrously large on stage.
Cacioppo lets him stand atop the small "hill" in the center of the stage and shout out rants about "taking back America." The political imagery in these moments feels unavoidable - Ford (and the feisty actor breathing fiery life into him) - is nothing more than a demagogue, out to incite the mob. The power of the staging and acting can sweep the audience up in the moment, even if the ham-fisted writing ultimately falls short.
Ed Pilkington breathes querulous life into his aged Thomas Edison. I love Roberta Malcolm's wrinkled linen suit; it adds depth and just the right amount of insouciance. Edison never stands when he can sit - and never sits when he can lie. Even then, from a prone position, Pilkington lets fire with such raspy volleys of salty putdowns and sharp words as to define a character that could have been little more than "cranky old man." Don't miss Florida Rep intern Brian Hatch's prickly turn as a Secret Service agent.
Florida Rep ensemble member Peter Thomasson sinks into the role of handsome, forgotten president Warren G. Harding with ease. I wish Cacioppo hadn't pushed the character's idiosyncrasies to such a degree; three quirky loons on stage threatens to unbalance the show. Thomasson's ruddy-faced blandness grounds the character, but only barely. Watch for his one great speech about how Harding never wanted to run for president; the "best of the second-rate" line speaks volumes about our modern political process.
In the end, that's what the show fumbles toward. Harding serves as the ego to Ford's id and Edison's super-ego. Harding may not be a "great" president or a great man, but neither is he an evil one. Ford, for all his genius, would have destroyed the country in his ruthless drive to run America like a company. As Edison says, "Machines can be fixed, not men."
Edison, Ford or Tesla? Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.