Too often modern monodrama ends up being more history lesson or lecture than a satisfying evening of entertainment. The story usually gets bogged down with cloying devices that stumble around a conceit, trying to tell a story while trying to explain why someone is talking to themselves. Are they talking to someone just off stage? Someone dead? Their inner id?
Terry Teachout’s well-crafted “Satchmo at the Waldorf” cannot dodge this bullet, doubtful any playwright can, but it certainly does more than satisfy as an evening’s entertainment.
Taking place in a dressing room after a gig at the New York’s Waldorf Hotel, we find that jazz great Louis Armstrong is left to remember and reflect. Luckily, a tape recorder is handy. Armstrong is collecting memories for a book and is using the recorder to capture them. So is Teachout. As Armstrong rambles through a life past, the memories flood in and the reflection offers insight — to Armstrong and the audience.
’Satchmo at the Waldorf’
WHERE: Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, MA
WHEN: Through September 16
HOW MUCH: $15-$65
MORE INFO: 413-637-3353 or www.shakespeare.org
Usually one person shows about an historical figure can be a tired slog through endless passages of “then I did this, and “she/he did this to me” and “can you believe I did this?” Teachout’s play uses all of this, but it also has something more — an altered perspective. This is a one-man play — one actor — but there are several characters. Teachout not only has the actor play Armstrong but also his manager Joe Glaser, who is able to comment and provide insight on the same stories that Armstrong tells. And there is jazz musician Miles Davis, who offers comment on a changing American sociological/artistic landscape. By using these other voices, Teachout’s “memory play” becomes something more — a clever look back with a power of polyglot perspective.
To pull off this feat, you need talent and this production is chock full. Doubtful that there is any actor around today that could tackle this role with more success than John Douglas Thompson.
Thompson does not try to imitate Armstrong’s voice, but the actor’s embodiment of character is so complete that on a few occasions, some of the lines are tinged with Armstrong’s gravelly growl, leaving you unclear as to whether it was your imagination or the actor’s magic. The only thing missing is Satchmo’s ever-present public grin, but then again we are backstage, not on it. As Thompson seamlessly glides from Armstrong, to Glaser to Davis, it’s hard not to be amazed. No big moves. No Jekyll and Hyde moments. Artful, small, perfect.
Everything, combined together, here works – script, actor, direction (by Gordon Edelstein) — and it’s a pleasure from start to finish.