Presented by ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage
Music by Stephen Foster, Hershey Felder, and Others
Book by Hershey Felder
Produced by Eighty-Eight Entertainment
May 20 – 31, 2014
Cutler Majestic Theatre
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Review by Danielle Rosvally
(Boston) When you go to see a one-man play, you know that you’re either in for a real treat or a real travesty. When I saw the grand stage of the Cutler Majestic arrayed with nothing but drapery, lumpy parcels, and a Steinway, my mind was not set at ease.
But the minute that Hershey Felder took the stage in Abe Lincoln’s Piano, I understood that I was about to taste a theatrical delicacy. Felder navigates the story of American history with a personal flair unequaled by any actor I have ever previously encountered. Ducking and weaving his way through this memory play by way of spoken narrative and musical interludes, Felder holds the threads of the tapestry in his hands and masterfully weaves them into a flawless pictogram of patriotism before your very eyes.
Felder’s boundless talent is complimented by unparalleled lighting design. What at first seems like ornate drapery fripperizing the bare-bones set transforms into the show’s second actor. Through the course of the evening, this fabric bedecking the stage’s walls and ceiling plays host to the play’s subtle and ever-changing backdrop created via projections. Historical imagery, emblems of the nation, and standard setting elements transport the audience into Felder’s world via nothing greater than illumination. The shadowy essence of light assists in creating the overall feel of this piece. Light, ethereal and ever-present, brings substance to the painful memories of our country’s past which Felder humanizes over the course of this show.
I can think of no better venue for this piece than the Cutler Majestic. Built in the nineteenth century style at the cusp of the twentieth century, the theatre itself lends a meta-backdrop for the play. You, as an audience member, walk into the Cutler Majestic and are immediately immersed in the world which Felder creates. One can really believe that Abraham Lincoln might walk into the actual bunting-bedecked box hovering over your head and set aside for this ever-present/unpresent character. In this regard, the theatre supports the work to the utmost.
Clearly, this is a play very strongly affiliated with historical fact. While I believe that the human aspects of the story will appeal to any audience member, maximum enjoyment will be garnered by those who have taken the time to bone up on their history before attending. The historical narrative presented here is remarkably accurate; if you’re looking for an entirely accessible account of American History (or, for that matter, Theatre History), you should make an effort to see this play. While I will say that Felder took a soft hand to some of the more controversial issues he presents (minstrelsy, for instance), I’m not certain that any more of the truth would have been necessary to his overall message.
So in making your preparations for patriotic assembly this year, consider Abe Lincoln’s Piano a necessary addition to stockpiling your semi-legal fireworks acquired under dubious circumstances during a covert trip to New Hampshire. It’s definitely as blood stirring as a good rendition of the national anthem, and certainly a lot more enriching to the human soul than watching burgers cook on the grill.