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The noted Chicago actor evokes the great leader with a Churchillian display of sheer thespian bravado.

Theater Review (NYC Off-Broadway): ‘Churchill’ Adapted and Performed by Ronald Keaton

In Ronald Keaton’s one-man Churchill, the noted Chicago actor evokes the great leader with a, dare I say, Churchillian display of sheer thespian bravado. Bearing little physical resemblance to Winston Churchill and only partially reproducing the Englishman’s distinct, indeed unique accent and intonations, Keaton nonetheless held me spellbound for two acts as he narrated and embodied the wartime Prime Minister from his youth through his Boer War adventures, love and marriage, political ups and downs, and Finest Hour, all the way to the dénouement of his long, eventful career. It’s a fine piece of work and a noble start to Keaton’s new entity, the SoloChicago Theatre.

Ronald Keaton in 'Churchill,' photo by Jason Epperson
Ronald Keaton in ‘Churchill,’ photo by Jason Epperson

Kurt Johns’ concise staging features a simple, evocative set by Jason Epperson, occupied mostly a large dining or a conference table. Eric Backus’s forthright sound design presents traditional songs and other effects, like voices of the dead soldiers of Gallipoli. Backing everything up, Paul Deziel’s excellent projection design offers images of important people Churchill discusses, various scenes, maps, blowups of the peaceful landscapes Churchill painted, and so forth. But honestly, I had to make an effort to take my eyes off Keaton’s Churchill to take in the backdrops.

Keaton adapted the script from Churchill’s life story, the great man’s own words, and a teleplay by Dr. James C. Humes. Before bringing it to New York he performed it to solid reviews in Chicago. A basement theater at New World Stages feels like a good new home for Churchill. You enter the former discount movie house, go down a deep flight of stairs, and pass a bar before entering the theater. It made me think of Churchill’s underground war room, as well as his whiskey habit.

The show’s effectiveness comes partly from Keaton’s direct address to and inclusion of the audience. We’re not generic viewers, but specifically Americans, made to feel as if we’re attending a lecture tour Churchill might have delivered near the end of his life. It’s a powerful meta-theatrical technique Keaton and director Johns make the most of. My only quibble is that among the Churchill quotes included in the script, a few feel shoehorned in, small nicks in an otherwise smoothly and smartly constructed script.

Charming, deep, emotionally affecting, expertly crafted, and (incidentally) informative, Churchill is a solo show that feels bigger than a solo show. For tickets visit Telecharge or call 212-239-6200.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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