American history education hasn’t gone so off course that a playwright thinks the explorers of the Lousiana Territory reached that Middle Eastern river and not the Pacific Ocean. At Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum, in the world premiere of his play, Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, Robert Schenkkan uses the legendary exploits of the intrepid duo of Lewis and Clark to delve into the American psyche about imperialism but his well-intended socio-political commentary is more likely to send people racing to the Internet or library to learn more about the frontiers of the past instead of the political mess of today.
Using the past to comment on the present isn’t new, of course. Arthur Miller most famously used the Salem witch trials to criticize the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and its look into the communist leanings of prominent Americans. Rod Serling in his “Twilight Zone” series used time travel to comment on courage, fate, justice and nostalgia for the past or a yearning for the future. His short 30-minute episodes focused on one event and its consequences. The “Back to the Future” series presented a time travel conundrum that while convoluted still had an inner logic.
Time travel can work, but in Schenkkan’s piece there is no internal logic, no mechanical device like the DeLorean or mechanical contraption, no sudden or mysterious event that explains the crossing of Captain William Clark (Jeffrey Nordling) and (Captain Meriweather Lewis) into the Spanish American War of 1898, where they meet Teddy Roosevelt, and the Vietnam War, where they meet the infamous Lt. Calley at My Lai or the Iraq War.
This crossing over doesn’t take place until the second act. The first act is more easily understood. We have Clark talking about rumors and misunderstanding, a need to explain himself. A happily drunk Lewis then appears.
They recall their meeting with President Thomas Jefferson (Morgan Rusler) who is having intimate play with his mistress, Sally Hemmings (Tess Lina), who spends most of the scene under Jefferson’s table. Obviously, this means to be a playful history—one doubts Jefferson was really carrying on with Hemmings while charging Lewis with the serious business of exploring these new territories bought off the French and already occupied by traders and Native Americans. Schenkkan aligns himself with the idea that Clark had romantic feelings for Sacagawea, indignant over her sexual slavery to her husband.
Director Gregory Boyd can’t find a tone that suitably fits both the more lighthearted first act and the darker second act. As the more methodical Clark, Nordling is a convincing narrator, the man one would trust to tell the facts, a man not totally blind to his contradictions. Barbour makes Lewis a man of action, flamboyant words and yet seem quite able to explain the emotional complexity that would lead a man to suicide. As Sacagawea, Lina has a calm sweetness and yet suggests that the women are really all relatively minor characters in the historic long run.
Schenkkan has decided to sex up history, but this lighthearted look at sexual relations seems to contradict his more serious messages in the second act. After all, if he suggests that Sacagawea’s (Lina) marriage to Charbonneau (Tony Amendola) is slavery and rape—not unlike the relationship of Clark with his slave York (Eugene Lee), then what about rape in Vietnam? Lewis and Clark and their men all seem to suffer from the pox, but in Vietnam there’s little talk about whorehouses and condoms and in Iraq, other types of sexual humiliation that we now know happened to prisoners of war.
Schenkkan seems intent on building up a continuum of American imperialism, showing its evolution by using certain key events. Yet the result is little more than a mucky jungle of ideas. You feel as if you’re hearing a voice crying in rage, nattering on aimlessly and accidentally finding something—a moment of lucidity—before getting lost again. Like Lewis and Clark, one is elated to find an ending—not the so-called discovery of the passage to the Pacific Ocean, but a chance to flee the theater and rediscover old memories of history lessons.
Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m. Ends Jan. 22. $42-$55. (213) 628-2772.