Long before 24-hour cable TV turned urban socialites and Alaskan ex-governors into household names, there was Will Rogers.
From rodeo to the radio, silent film to the stage, Rogers
was the emblematic common man of the 1920s and 1930s, with witticisms
culled from peripatetic experience rather than college classrooms.
Unlike much of today’s anti-elite rhetoric, there was no
malice in Rogers’ mirth. The timeless truths in his plainspoken
observations were as inoffensive then as they are now.
As the late humorist/cowboy/actor and all-around
celebrity, Kevin McKillip pays tribute to Rogers in his self-composed
one-man show, “Will Rogers: An American Original” at Stormfield
Theatre. “Rogers” blends puns, political commentary and rope tricks
into a polished portrait of an American archetype.
Downstage from the Ansel Adams-inspired mountain peak
backdrop by Michelle Raymond, McKillip’s pressed cowboy attire (topped
by a tan 10-gallon hat) immediately transports audiences out of
Frandor. McKillip’s work blends actual quotes and anecdotes drawn from
the entirety of Rogers’ tragically short life; his passion for his
subject and his charm make Rogers feel like a complete person.
The show’s liveliest moments come from McKillip’s mastery of rope tricks, which provide action and visual flair.
Working against McKillip is the real Rogers’ relatively
lost legacy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rogers has yet to
receive his feature film biopic starring the latest Hollywood
sensation. Consequently, McKillip must not only re-attribute quotes and
accomplishments but also persuade the public of Rogers’ relevance
beyond “he used to be the biggest.”
McKillip keenly excels in the first
area, intoning lines like, “I belong to no organized party — I’m a
Democrat,” with a natural drawl. But beyond making the
connection to Rogers’ unintentional contribution to today’s ubiquitous
chain-email forwards, McKillip struggled to convince Friday’s intimate
audience that Rogers’ cowboy wisdom and soft political jabs still apply
to post-modern realities.
Rogers serves as a living time capsule whose stage
persona remains blissfully unaware of the passing decades. Audiences
are expected to make parallels between past and present assessments of
a perpetually dysfunctional government or Hollywood philandering.
But it should be noted that Rogers was a humorist, not a
satirist. Despite his pseudo-campaign for president, a la Pat Paulson
or Stephen Colbert, Rogers’ spirit can be found more plainly in
late-night icons like Jay Leno or David Letterman than Jon Stewart.
After all, Rogers’ relatively innocuous punch lines were the reason he
appealed to the masses.
’Will Rogers: An American Original’
Through Nov. 20
7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
201 Morgan Lane, Lansing
$18 Thursdays; $24 Fridays and Saturdays; $20 Sundays; $2 off for seniors; $10 students