Among local performers, Simon Donoghue and James Cartee are as different as it gets. So it wasn’t surprising that, in their recent one-man shows, the two actors took on wildly different historical figures. Last week at Belmont Abbey, the urbane and understated Donoghue portrayed Renaissance philosopher and politician Sir Thomas More. A week earlier, the frenetic and over-the-top Cartee completed a weeklong stint as the gin guzzling, pill popping, firearm-hoarding firebrand of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson — against the back wall of The Mill, that lovable NoDa dive.
What a perfect spot for Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis, Paul Addis’s sputtering, splenetic tribute to an obviously kindred spirit. I’d seen Cartee’s shtick in its previous 2009 incarnation at The Graduate. Then as now, the production in Plaza-Midwood was directed by that grizzled master of subtlety, Tom Ollis, an old hand at trashing typewriters since his True West days. This time around, people besides Ollis and me were in attendance as Cartee popped pills, swilled various simulations of ethanol, brandished firearms, and trashed his little stage, including a hapless Selectric.
Instead of the somewhat forced laughter I encountered in 2009, from Ollis and other Citizens of the Universe partisans who were manning the crude electronics — rudimentary electronics are a COTU badge of honor — there was plenty of lusty spontaneous laughter at The Mill, spurring Cartee on to funnier, more outrageous excesses. The approval also had a gradual mellowing effect on Cartee, so that more of Hunter’s fantastical ramblings were actually intelligible during Act 2, slowed down from blinding roadrunner speed to that of a creature less hunted.
In Thompson’s signature self-absorbed style, Gonzo takes us through the misadventures of his early career, dropping us off before his famed takedowns of the war on drugs in Las Vegas and the ’72 presidential campaign. So we hear about his sojourn with the Hell’s Angels, his beating at the hands of the jackboots at the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, his quixotic run for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, and the improbable triumph of his scribblings on the 1970 Kentucky Derby. That’s about halfway through a hard-drinking, loud-revving life that ended in 2005 with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
If the COTU guerillas revive it, The Mill will remain the ideal place for the booze, the bluster, the cigarette holder, and the whole Hunter mishegoss. Reconnoitering the area near the N. Davidson-36th Street intersection during the intermission, I discovered posters on walls and in nearby shop windows ballyhooing Gonzo in an apt Bohemian style. Eureka! Somewhere in Charlotte, of all places, theater was happening like a grassroots community event. So the city isn’t running entirely on barcodes, plastic, and ATMs.
Cut to the Tower of London in 1535, where Donoghue as Sir Thomas addresses us with full monastic solemnity on the final morning of his life prior to his beheading. It’s just 400 years before Pope Pius XI will confer sainthood on the martyred champion of the Roman Catholic Church, so the man could use a stiff drink. But the “man for all seasons” didn’t cope with the vicissitudes of life — or literary composition — by turning to chemicals as Thompson would.
Or at least he doesn’t in Donoghue’s account, for Donoghue wrote More with the blessing of the Thomas More Scholars of Belmont Abbey College. While there are plenty of signs of More’s intelligence and wit, including some of his more familiar bon mots, the language is cold sober, devoid of expletives or startling expostulations, with frequent denunciations of heretics and expressions of piety — as there should be, since he is on the verge of dying for them.
The non-gonzo aspects of More’s style make for some dreary sledding in Act 1 as we hear about his study and practice of law, his first forays into politics and diplomacy, the acclaim bestowed upon him as author of Utopia, his disputations with Martin Luther, and his rise to the exalted — and dangerous — position of Lord Chancellor during the reign of Henry VIII. Intermission leaves us on the precipice of the “Great Matter,” Henry’s desire to annul his marriage to Queen Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn, so he can sire a male heir to his throne. One huge obstacle lies in the king’s path: the Roman Catholic Church must approve.
So Act 2 perks up considerably as More’s loyalty to his king and loyalty to his church and conscience become more and more contradictory. Sir Thomas attempted to walk a tightrope after resigning the chancellorship, refusing to sign the Act of Succession endorsing Queen Anne’s children as Henry’s heirs yet never denouncing the king’s divorce or his formation of the Anglican Church. But how many queens would Henry go on to imprison and decapitate? You knew things weren’t going to go well for Thomas if he stuck to his guns.
Donoghue won a Creative Loafing Charlotte Theater Award for his contribution to A Man for All Season when Charlotte Rep presented Robert Bolt’s drama as the first show ever at Booth Playhouse in 1992, but that was merely a cameo. Under some deft direction by Jill Bloede, Donoghue was more fully in the spotlight revisiting More’s tragic demise, and once again he shone.
I’m betting that Donoghue and his one-man show will surface again in the near future, outside the Abbey. With its minimal set and lighting by Gary Sivak, More should travel light. Just not to The Mill.