Lewis And Clark Reach The Euphrates

Review by Willard Manus

Following on the heels of Stuff Happens, the Mark Taper Forum has mounted another ambitious political drama, Robert Schenkkan's LEWIS AND CLARK REACH THE EUPHRATES. Schenkkan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 The Kentucky Cycle, is a socially conscious dramatist in the tradition of Clifford Odets and Elmer Rice. Where Kentucky Cycle was realistic in form, his latest work is abstract and absurdist, with leaps in time and characters playing multiple roles. It's fair to say that Schenkkan is deconstructing social realism.

This doesn't mean, though, that he's any less critical of American values and history. Kentucky Cycle was about the class struggle in Appalachia; LEWIS AND CLARK is about the flaws in this country's ideology, the hypocritical underpinnings of our supposed democracy. We pride ourselves on being a nation of free, equal citizens, even though our roots are steeped in slavery and genocide.

In LEWIS AND CLARK, President Thomas Jefferson (Morgan Rusler) sends the intrepid explorers (James Barbour & Jeffrey Nordling, respectively) out on a noble-sounding mission into the wilds of uncharted America in order to discover a waterway to the Pacific, tame the natives and make things safe for commerce and democracy. It was, as Schenkkan shows, America's first imperialist venture, a quest for power and dominance overlaid with do-good sentiments about civilizing and pacifying the godless natives.

As Lewis and Clark discover as they voyage (on a raft on wheels) into the heartlands--Clark brings York (Eugene Lee), his personal slave, along with him; absurdity encapsulated--neither the pagans nor the wilderness will be easily pacified. The Indians do not want to be turned into farmers beholden to The Great Father in Washington; the land will not give up its riches, not without many a fight and struggle.

Lewis and Clark persist in their 1804-06 Mission of Discovery, even though it leads to illness, bloodshed, suffering, death and disaster. The march to the tune of Manifest Destiny is handled by Schenkkan in a blackly satiric way which suddenly shoots our heroes into the future--encountering Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in Cuba, General Wood in the Philippines, General Diem in Vietnam, Donald Rumsfeld and Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq.

Schenkkan, director Gregory Boyd, and the superb cast (Roy Abramsohn, Tony Amendola, Ruben Gonzalez, Tess Lina, Ty Mayberry and Randy Oglesby) handle the jumps in time with deft, quick strokes, aided also by Jeff Cowie's servicable set. LEWIS AND CLARK may not be a great play, but it is an important, relevant and provocative one. The point it makes, that America's foreign exploits always lead to folly and ruin, needs to be heard loud and clear today. (Call 213-628-2772 for tickets & information).