By Kyle Osborne
Even as they seem to be gaining in popularity, one-person shows can be fraught with pitfalls; try to incorporate too many characters and you risk coming off as “gimmicky” or, worse, you lose or confuse the audience. Keep it to just one character, and things can quickly devolve into a theatrical power-point presentation (though Hal Holden has been playing Mark Twain since 1954 with unmatched success).
So, it is a joyous occasion to see Playwright/Actor Daniel Beaty gracefully soar above the potential perils in The Tallest Tree In The Forest at Arena Stage. The staged biography of Paul Robeson, the most famous and, later, most controversial African-American of his time is a perfect blend of humor, anger, politics, showbiz and even a little salacious gossip. Beaty plays dozens of characters, incorporates film, live music, accomplished singing, some non-fussy costume changes and never once disrupts the easy flow of the two act play. In the best way, The Tallest Tree In The Forest flies by—skipping along the decades, never getting bogged down in the many facts that most theatre-goers will be surprised they didn’t already know.
Entering the stage while singing the classic ‘Ol’ Man River’, a song which made Robseon famous on Broadway, Beaty, in the voice of Robeson takes us back to his childhood, through his career as a celebrity entertainer, and on to his appearance at the McCarthy Hearings and beyond. One bravura sequence has Beaty quickly switching between a 10 year old Robeson, his older brother and his father. It’s some kind of re-configured Rondelet that amazes, yet never takes the viewer out of the kitchen where this conversation takes place.
Beaty’s portrayal of Essie, Robeson’s strong-willed, yet long-suffering, wife almost always conjures a smile from the viewer. With one hip jutted out and her chin held up at an angle, Essie is a force to be reckoned with. Again, Beaty glides with such ease between Essie and Robeson during their husband and wife conversations, that you’ll swear you’re looking at two distinct characters, rather than one sole actor.
Underneath it all is an actor who seems humble, sincere and dedicated. What he pulls off is no parlor trick, it’s the result of years of writing, honing, memorizing so much dialog. One-man shows can sometimes feel like a showcase for an actor’s narcissism, The Tallest Tree In The Forest, on the other hand, should become a “how-to” lesson for any actors who attempt such a feat in the future.
The Tallest Tree In The Forest Continues at Arena Stage Through February 16th. Tickets and more information are available by visiting: http://www.ArenaStage.org You can find more theatre and film reviews at: http://www.EntertainmentOrDie.com