Photo by Melynda Woodward
Reviewed by Di Jayawickrema
“First there are words/then comes the laughter/and the meaning of it all comes after,” Chris Wallace warbles in a pleasant baritone, introducing the works of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. The Mark Twain You Don’t Know only partially fulfills this promise—there is an overabundance of words, a smattering of laughter, but the “meaning of it all” remains elusive. The lengthy, obscure pieces Wallace performs are meant to illuminate Twain’s unexplored views on the follies and graces of “the damned human race,” but the works feel unconnected to each other and only succeed in illustrating the Twain most of us already do know; a man of wry wit, absurdity, and flashes of feeling. Consequently, despite a faithful and impressive performance, Wallace cannot impart the palpable enthusiasm he feels for the writer to the audience.
Demonstrating an enviable memory, Wallace performs excerpts from Twain’s works word-for-word, opening with Letters from the Earth, which features Satan as a cigar-wielding Southerner (not unlike Twain himself) expounding on humanity’s absurd religious notions. Full of big ideas and Twain’s classic satirical tone—“Many people have the reasoning faculty but don’t use it in religious matters”—the distillation of these essays is a laborious intellectual effort, both for the performer and the audience. As the editor and writer of the one-man show, Wallace often comes across as a lecturer.
As an actor, however, Wallace is flawless. The ribald comic piece, 1601: A Conversation as it was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors, gives him a chance to air his considerable range of facial, body, and vocal expression. He plays a theatrical Shakespeare, a crotchety old Dame, a dignified Dr. Johnson, and more, always with aplomb and humor. The background music and Brett Maughan’s lighting is impeccably timed to the actor’s movements, and Amada Carr’s costuming; the crisp white suit we’ve come to associate with Twain, is likewise perfectly turned. Yet despite these merits, the show still feels like it’s stuck in a vacuum; “The War Prayer,” while well-written, –performed, and –staged, feels curiously detached.
Worst is when Wallace ceases to provide insight as with his musical summary of Huckleberry Finn. While this vignette features the highlight of the show (a hilarious tuneful jumble of Shakespeare’s plays titled “Hamlet: King of Moors”), much of it feels like musical theater SparkNotes. This sort of succinct summary and analysis would be helpful to a high-school student but is tedious if you’ve already read the book. It’s not until the somber ending—a letter on the death of Twain’s daughter revealing the tragedy in Clemens’ life never hinted at in his work—that we catch an affective glimpse of the Mark Twain we don’t know.-------------------------------------------
The Mark Twain You Don’t Know (2 hours; 15 min intermission)
Location: Richmond Shepard Theatre (
Tickets: $20; students and seniors $15
Performances: Through 4/5 (Wed-Sat @ 8PM, Sun @ 3PM)