Someone at Intiman Theatre had the good idea to stage All the King's Men to coincide with the 2008 presidential election. And why not? Who wouldn't enjoy a tale of a charismatic maverick who plays us-against-the-elites and rides to power?
But it's almost spooky to see how much of Robert Penn Warren's 1947 political masterpiece still resonates, especially now with the injection of Sarah Palin into public discourse. (Jonathan Raban's dissection of the Palin phenomenon is the best I've read.)
Intiman's production is a highly entertaining meditation on the power of personality, so timely that Palin is an unannounced player. She's a guest star in the mind as one watches the tale of Willie Stark, a character inspired by Louisiana Gov. Huey Long.
Watching this production a day after Palin winked and nose-wrinkled her way past Joe Biden and the soft bigotry of low expectations, I wondered just who would have won a debate between the governor from the 1930s and the governor from Wasilla. What's more appealing today? A chicken in every pot or mooseburgers on the grill? Not to overdo the comparison, but both Stark and Palin play on class resentments, celebrate the rural over the urban, call themselves reformers whose critics are enemies of change, give speeches more about passions than policies, take care of rivals with ferocity, sidestep scandals, navigate alliances, and deal with disclosures of high school pregnancies.
Intiman's production, directed by Pam MacKinnon, is based on a 1987 stage adaption of Warren's novel by Adrian Hall. John Procaccino plays Stark. Leo Marks plays Jack Burden, the newspaper reporter who quits his job to work for Stark and lives a tale of discovery and disillusionment. The story includes an array of political fixers, a gunman, soon-to-be disappointed idealists, one-timing and two-timing women, a distinguished judge with a hidden past, and a big man named Tiny.
I have some minor concerns with the script. I wonder if Hall as adapter tried to import one too many characters onto the stage. For example, Willie Stark's football-playing son is barely introduced before getting killed off. Intiman's production, however, is genuinely first rate — well-paced and clear. The Randy Newman songs, written into the text as part of Adrian Hall's adaptation, come from his 1974 album Good Old Boys. They work wonderfully, thanks to Music Director Edd Key, who created original arrangements for the actors, who double as onstage musicians. Where do I buy the cast album?
One flaw might be some of Marks' decisions about playing Jack Burden. As an actor, he commands attention, but there doesn't seem much shift in his character over time. He seems detached from everything, even from the moments where he's back in time with a high school sweetheart.
That's just a quibble regarding a very able cast. Procaccino, whose decades of strong, steady performances make him a sort of Edgar Martinez of the Seattle stage, is once again a delight to watch. If there's an Obie for best performance involving a politician rubbing his bare feet, Procaccino gets it. And any time you see him on stage with Lori Larsen, who plays the mother of Jack Burden, it's an evening well spent.
One note to theatergoers: this production is recommended for people 14 and up and includes harsh language, including frequent use the N-word. After the show, I recommend a mooseburger at the local hockey rink.