Oldcastle does 'Israel Potter' proud

Bennington troupe's opening comedy also delivers powerful message

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BENNINGTON — Eric Peterson, artistic director of Oldcastle Theatre Company, recently told me that its 49th season was going to feature plays that "try to make sense of the world around us and seek context to our current realities."

Peterson couldn't have been more on target than with Oldcastle's opening show, directed by Nathan Stith: "The Almost True and Truly Remarkable Adventures of Israel Potter," by Joe Bravaco and Larry Rosler, adapted from the novel by Herman Melville, "Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile."

The play can be described as very funny but with an undercurrent of the serious always lurking in the background, by implication.

The story finds us at the dawn of the Revolutionary War, with local ties. Israel Potter (Josh Aaron McCabe) embarks from a small Berkshires town, leaving behind fianc Betty (Anne Undeland), at the behest of his opportunist rival, the often unworthily promoted and eventual Captain Tichenor (Richard Howe).

Potter enters into the fight for freedom, then on to mother England and back again, all while going through life's many ups and downs, for far longer than he cares to.

The focus is the improbable nature of who Israel Potter meets, such as Benjamin Franklin (Undeland), George Washington and Ethan Allen (Gary Allan Poe), John Paul Jones (Robert St. Laurence), King George (Christine Decker) and a plethora of others played by everyone but McCabe, and the historical events he somehow influences — all with an eye for the absurd.

Despite some line hesitations and slips on opening night, the cast did some marvelous work in a high-paced milieu that required considerable chops in both comedy and tragedy.

Oldcastle veterans Howe, Decker and Poe were stalwarts, with Howe's Tichenor a weasel-like sycophant and Decker superbly navigating any gender at any moment required. Poe gets an approving nod for the stuffy egomaniacal rendition of Allen, whose turns at being a self-promoting blowhard were the stuff of Vermont legend.

Undeland and McCabe knew the road to both humor and poignancy, with the latter wide-eyed and stumbling, his physical comedy almost making us forget that Potter's patriotism was well rooted and sincere. Undeland, for her part, was both emotional and expressive, yet more than able to belt out nicely timed punchlines when the laughs were needed, too.

Finally, it's fair to say the St. Laurence's John Paul Jones stole the show. Complete with impeccable Scottish brogue, the Oldcastle rookie hilariously put forth his best Errol Flynn impersonation of bravado, fearlessness and fun-poking self-admiration of the legendary naval commander that had the audience both chuckling and in guffaws. Nicely done sir!

Roy Hamlin's set was Spartan yet utilitarian, helping the rapid action and multiple scenes of this play blend into one another, with brilliant touches throughout to mesh the real with the surreal.

Ursula McCarty's costumes were also a study in creative brilliance, given the grayish earth tones she used as a theme, splashed with the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack as clever scarves to call out nationality shifts happening within split seconds.

David V. Group 's lights also incorporated digital projection technology that added to both action and scene shifts, and Cory Wheat's timely sound went hand in glove with the same sort of rapid-fire transition needed to make this play work.

There is much here that lends itself to silliness, but also to matters that are deeply reflective and make one ponder what it took to get this American experiment off the ground and running — and amazingly, what keeps it going today despite bumps, bruises, and sometimes outright brawls along the way, present situation included, ostensibly.

Whatever naysayers and haters might proclaim, to be an American actually means something on the world stage, and despite our own faults and struggles with self-determination, this country is still the place that people want to come to in order to change their life fortunes.

"Israel Potter" seems to tell us — with much laughter along the way — that the little guy is always the backbone of freedom, and that his sacrifices are many, often not appreciated or recognized, but always worth it. As Americans, we forsake these things at our own peril.

Like many soldiers pressed into duty before him, Israel Potter was a reluctant warrior whose sense of duty and conscience — despite taking it on the chin over and over — kept him pressing forward to his ultimate goal: just going home to his beloved Berkshire hills.

The Oldcastle cast has nicely delivered the goods on both points, and this play, in its shorter run of 12 versus 16 shows — an Oldcastle initiative new to this season — is worth seeing while it is still on stage.

Go have a gander, and remind yourself what really makes this country great.

Oldcastle Theatre Company is located 331 Main St. in Bennington. Tickets and info: 802-447-0564 or www.oldcastletheatre.org.

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA), and a longtime regional drama critic. Email: tchalkias@aol.com. Twitter: @TellyHalkias

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