Revisiting the heyday of department stores and five-and-dimes

Lewis Black kills as King George III on July 4


Comedian-actor-playwright Lewis Black, a Silver Spring native and this year's American Visionary Art Museum "Grand Visionary," exercised his specialty -- apoplectic indignation -- with a hilarious reading of King George III's reply to his American colonies' Declaration of Independence yesterday in Williamstown, Mass. It just about defined that great old phrase "high dudgeon."

My wife and I are at the Williamstown Theatre Festival to see the first three plays in its 2011 slate, including the upcoming premiere of Black's long-gestating farce, "One Slight Hitch." We didn't know when we arrived Thursday night that members of the WTF read pertinent Independence Day documents every year at the climax of Williamstown's July 4 celebration.

This year, Jessica Hecht, who had just played Blanche Du Bois to Sam Rockwell's Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire,' and Steven Weber, who costars in "Three Hotels" with Maura Tierney, read The Declaration of Independence with pride, eloquence and aplomb.

But Black amped up the energy in a packed Williams College courtyard with "His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to Both Houses of Parliament on Thursday, October 31, 1776." It was a dazzling instance of Black's use of visceral outrage as performance art.

He fed off the crowd's aggressive delight at viewing him as the day's Monarch You Love to Hate.

When some fool with a toy gun fired rubber bullets at him, he ad-libbed, with a growl, "They bounce off."

He was brilliant as well as funny when emphasizing the King's feeling of personal insult that "My unhappy People" had not "recovered from their Delusion" and thrown off "the Oppression of their [revolutionary] Leaders."  (Every noun was capitalized in the document -- and in Black's reading of it.)

The crowd reacted with derision to the King's announcement, "Canada has been recovered."

So Black broke character while sustaining his outraged tone: "You don't boo Canada," he spluttered.

Black turned his own inability to get his tongue around words like "inestimable" into additional avenues for comic fury. His bellicose loftiness worked comic wonders, whether he was directing it against himself as a performer or against the colonies in his role as George III. 

Black reached his peak of livid grandeur when the King said, "No people ever enjoyed more Happiness, or lived under a milder Government, than those now revolted Provinces: the Improvements in every Art, of which they boast, declare it: their Numbers, their Wealth, their Strength by Sea and Land, which they think sufficient to enable them to make Head against the whole Power of the Mother Country, are irrefragable Proofs of it."

Black looked up from his transcript and asked, in fierce bewilderment, "Who ever used the word 'irrefragable' in a sentence?"

His hauteur never faltered. Black put across that even on a bad day -- as Mel Brooks said when playing King Louis XVI during the French Revolution -- "It's good to be the king."

More later on the WTF program and, in particular, Black's "One Slight Hitch." 

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