There is much marvelous invention on view here, with film effects simulated by smoke and ladders, flashlight beams, and, in the most hilarious sequence, shadow puppetry complete with strafing biplanes and Hitchcock cameo. The cast is straight-faced and skilled, with Edwards mixing all the wooden urgency of the film’s Robert Donat with carefully choreographed, gracefully melodramatic moves and Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders proving a chameleonic Mutt and Jeff whose changes of costume, headgear, accent, and body language, however quicksilver, do not quite mask the aura of old vaudevillians barely holding the act together. The simulation of the movie is clever, albeit ratcheted up for comedy’s sake (though Godfrey Tearle’s digitally impaired villain is turned into a fuming Nazi redolent of Peter Lorre). But as inspired as individual effects and moments are, the show, marching in the movie’s footsteps with little purpose beyond its own ingenuity, can become tedious. Perhaps if there were just 29 steps, we’d be left wishing for more.
More is usually what you get at Trinity Repertory Company, where founding artistic director Adrian Hall’s charged and sprawling yet also reflective 1987 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is enjoying a 20th-anniversary revival (through October 21) as powerful as the original. True, it makes no historical sense to cast an African-American as Willie Stark, the Depression-era radical populist based on Louisiana governor Huey Long. But Joe Wilson Jr. is so herculean an actor, I’d buy him as a tap-dancing Klansman. And in contemporary terms, a black Democratic representative of the disenfranchised — even a corruptible one — rings true. Moreover, the Randy Newman tunes from the 1974 album Good Old Boys that Hall incorporated into the script take on eerie new resonance in the wake of Katrina: the flood-inspired “Louisiana, 1927” opens the show, with its reprise “Louisiana, Louisiana, they’re tryin’ to wash us away.” The actors aren’t even in place yet, but the goosebumps are.
All the King’s Men is the sort of theater experience that’s exhilarating. “No,” you want to shout, “film or TV or watching Curb Your Enthusiasm reruns on your computer cannot do this!” “This” being to engage the audience in a communal public experience that is not only thrilling but also about something: the “spider web” of history, in which we are all entangled. Hall’s adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning novel underlines that in a way neither the Oscar-winning 1949 film, starring Broderick Crawford, nor the 2006 remake, with Sean Penn, does. Both films focus on Stark, the shrewd hick from the sticks who pumps his way to power on pure political passion, declaring “every man a king,” and then becomes a dictator and demagogue. The play, on the other hand, divides its focus between Stark, played by Wilson as something between an evangelist and a welterweight bully, and the book’s narrator, journalist-turned-political-flak Jack Burden, who learns that there is no such thing as a bystander to history.
In Brian McEleney’s rousing production, the audience doesn’t get to be a bystander either: the house lights are up during most of the show, enveloping us all in the political process, whether stirring or sleazy. And one section of the audience, on two sets of bleachers placed in the playing space between the genteel splendor of Burden’s Landing and a saloon floating above pianist David Tessier, is swept into the action: hurtled toward a speechifying Stark spewing oratory from atop a desk or a pool table, bisected to serve as fans at a fatal football game, and otherwise whirled about and rearranged as the action requires.