History is an interesting animal, in some ways it is like a dinosaur. We can look at the bones of the once mighty dinosaurs and pontificate: How did it live? What did it look like? What might its life been like? With more contemporary history we often have the luxury of texts, letters, documents or diaries to refer back to. But there will always gaps between the bones to fill in and moments that were never recorded or are lost. The telling of these stories often speak volumes about the person telling the story, who can't help but bring their bias and perspectives to the telling. Perhaps this is why it makes sense for an autobiographical monologist to explore the world of biography in the telling the story of "the first American", Benjamin Franklin.
For Josh Kornbluth, the story of Ben Franklin, his relationship with his son and his complicated position in history is an ideal canvas to express and explore Kornbluth's own life and relationships both to his father and history. These themes run thorough out much of Kornbluth's autobiographical work and so it's no surprise that they are present here. What is a surprise is how Kornbluth ultimately sets aside his own narrative in service of the greater story of Benjamin Franklin. It's a pretty huge step for someone who has spent the majority of his career in the autobiographical space and it shows that Kornbluth has an immense maturity as an artist and an enormous amount of trust in his material.
Josh Kornbluth's Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged begins with Kornbluth reenacting the day he discovered he bore a striking resemblance to Benjamin Franklin and then follows an adventure into Kornbluth learning more about the historical figure. That adventure is extraordinarily entertaining and Kornbluth feels a lot like a slightly nerdy Jewish Robert Langdon in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (with out all the car chases and murder mystery).
Through out the piece we learn a tremendous amount about Benjamin Franklin as Kornbluth literally wrestles with the fact and fiction surrounding one of the most recognizable figures in American history. For fans of American history this show is a literalsmorgasbord, an immense feast of knowledge and insight that will leave even the most ardent history buff spinning. But the piece doesn't work because it'll thrill history buffs, it works because it'll thrill those who aren't particularly enamored with history. Kornbluth manges to make the world of one of our founding fathers come alive and contextualizes it in a way that makes it exciting and entertaining. He literally dusts off the history books and shows the humanity contained within. Merging that narrative with his own he creates an evening that is extraordinarily entertaining.
In the case of Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged, entertaining doesn't always mean funny. Many contemporary monologists use humor extensively as their conduit to entertaining the audience. Here the occasional quip feels extemporaneous as Josh moves beyond humoring us to truly fascinating us. By conjuring up a cast of very real characters, both from history and from Josh's own life, Kornbluth takes us on an incredible adventure and he does this as a single performer on a lightly dressed stage.
For me it's exciting to see the art of monologue grow in this way. I grew up on tales from Spalding Grey who sat behind a simple desk with a glass of water and his notes. That's the image I've always had of monologue. Josh Kornbluth explores the possibilities of this art form with a set, props and staging. In the second act of the piece he emerges dressed in costume as Benjamin Franklin and the impact of that is considerable.
Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged is utterly entertaining, it brings Benjamin Franklin to life in a way no 'reenactment' could. By making the story of such an iconographic historical figure personal Josh Kornbluth inspires the audience to connect to history in their own way, to look beyond the commemorative poster of historical figures the into the real people behind them.
Josh Kornbluth's Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged runs at Portland Center Stage Oct 1- November 22nd.
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