ADAMANT — G. Richard Ames — or Rick, as he is best known — is one of the most familiar actors on central and northern Vermont’s stages, professional and community. (He will be appearing in Lost Nation Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” Sunday on the Vermont State House Lawn.) He has also created his own popular one-man comedies. However, Ames has never before revealed his acting — and comic — virtuosity more than in his current endeavor.
Ames is Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight,” adapted from Hal Holbrook’s one-man show, presented by QuarryWorks Theater Sept. 9-19 at the Phillips Experimental Theater in Adamant. The only remaining performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Sept. 16 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19.
Mark Twain — the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemons (1835-1910) — was called the greatest humorist the United States has ever produced, and William Faulkner named him “the father of American literature.” His most famous works were “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and its sequel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” often called “The Great American Novel.”
Holbrook (1925-2021), a renowned actor, television director and screenwriter, first performed his Twain solo show, culled from Twain’s own lecture programs, in 1954 in Pennsylvania, taking it to Off-Broadway in 1959, and Broadway in 1966, running for 174 performances. That won Holbrook that year’s Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play.
Holbrook said in an interview the first challenge in structuring the show was to first get the audience laughing to overcome its fears of listening to a literary figure. “The second act became the social-comment act,” but first he’d get them laughing, Holbrook said. “In the last act I gave them the Twain they’d been expecting all along: warm, whimsical, memories of childhood.”
And that’s just what Ames delivered Saturday evening, though he had cut the show to 80 minutes without intermission. (Holbrook frequently varied his material.) And for that brief time, Ames left the stage and became Mark Twain.
First of all, Ames looked a lot like Twain, thanks to excellent makeup and his own natural abundance of (powdered) hair. And whether he sounded like Twain is difficult to tell. But Ames’ trademark deep baritone voice disappeared, and an older, lighter and more-nuanced sound took over.
More importantly, Ames delivered Twain the raconteur. Ames’ Twain loved storytelling, joke telling and, in fact, the sound of his own voice. Telling is that the show was riveting nearly from beginning to end. And it was subtly touching as well as very funny.
The only problem with Ames’ delivery was it felt somewhat driven by a lack of breathing between stories, or stretching them a bit for comic or dramatic effect. That could be remedied with a little work by a good stage director.
Still, Ames’ “Mark Twain Tonight” is a delightful and stimulating entertainment — one that might become a signature performance piece for this fine actor.