A TV writer takes on Bill ClintonJuly 24,2013
By Jim Lowe
“OK, dogs, politics … Montpelier. How can we miss?” Kathleen Keenan said of what’s up next in Lost Nation Theater’s celebration of its 25th year as theater-in-residence at Montpelier City Hall Arts Center.
For an even bigger chance of success, Lost Nation chose as a subject a most well-liked, albeit controversial, president.
Lost Nation Theater will present veteran Rochester actor Ethan Bowen in “My Buddy Bill,” Rick Cleveland’s one-man comic tale of real and imagined conversations with Bill Clinton, Aug. 1-11.
“It’s a guy who wrote shows for ‘West Wing’ and ‘Six Feet Under,’ so he’s clearly a good TV writer,” Bowen said in a recent interview.
“I like it,” he said. “It’s like you’re sitting at a kitchen table with a beer and this really good storyteller is telling you a good yarn – the feeling of sitting around a pot bellied stove and (Sen. Patrick) Leahy telling you a story.”
Cleveland himself performed “My Buddy Bill” himself on stage and, in 2008, on television for Comedy Central.
“Part travelogue, part insight into the strange world of adult male friendship,” reported Anthony Layser in TV Guide at the time, “Cleveland presents his relationship with Clinton in such imaginative detail that audiences who have seen the show have been left wondering what is fact and what is fiction.”
In the “West Wing” period, Cleveland ends up visiting the Oval Office.
“He’s scratching Bill Clinton’s dog’s ear and Clinton walks in, and the dog peed all over the carpet,” Bowen said. “That moment bonded them in a way. They started talking. My character does something to stop the dog peeing.”
Cleveland and Clinton begin meeting and talking together. They walk on the beach; they meet in Arkansas; they travel to London where Cleveland’s play is being premiered.
“He’s a great storyteller,” Bowen said of Cleveland. “It’s all these little details about Clinton and his world. This guy, all through it, is ‘I can’t believe this story is happening to me.’”
After the first story, Cleveland describes his dad was an alcoholic bus driver, his mother was a drill press operator in a factory, while he almost dropped out of high school.
“It’s sort of the all-American story when even a high school stoner can end up walking on the beach and having a chat with the president,” Bown said.
The show works, in part, because Clinton really likes people, people from all walks of life – and, of course, all the women.
“But the sense of Clinton connecting, and really enjoying connecting with people, is what’s really clear in this,” Bowen said. “It’s both the journey with this guy, this set of extraordinary series events and this vision of a down-home version of Clinton.”
There are five sections and each one is a different meeting with Clinton.
“I just get up there and tell this story of how it happens – from the very beginning to how it ends up ending, it’s a little bittersweet.”
For Bowen, preparing this role is quite different from learning a straight play.
“The big thing here is that your relationship with the audience,” he said. “You’re telling a story to the audience so it’s very much, ‘Hi, how are you? Welcome to my world.’
There are parts that are easier and others that are more difficult.
“I don’t have to imagine myself in a deep place,” Bowen said. “The big thing is that I can prepare myself as much as I want in rehearsal, but I don’t know how it will go in front of an audience – because that’s the other character in the play. And every audience is different.”
“It’s a wonderful yarn,” Bowen said. “I don’t think this guy would let the truth stand in the way of a good story. But probably all of it happened.”
Lost Nation Theater
Lost Nation Theater presents Ethan Bowen in “My Buddy Bill,” a one-man comedy by Rick Cleveland, Aug. 1-11 at City Hall Arts Center, 39 Main St. in Montpelier. Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays, except 3 p.m. on Aug. 11; 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; plus a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, Aug. 3. Tickets are $30-$15; call 802-229-0492, or go online to lostnationtheater.org.
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