At the age of 85, Hal Holbrook has wit, passion and a lifetime's worth of perspective. Historian, comedian and actor all in one, he has devoted a good part of his career to performing and perfecting his one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight!" In this hilarious and hard-hitting performance, he impersonates the 19th-century humorist and pokes fun at politics, religion, society and human nature, all in Mark Twain's own words.
During my interview with Holbrook about "Mark Twain Tonight!" coming to the Castle Theater on Dec. 12, he discussed his long career, Twain's unique sense of humor, the issues of racism and war in the United States and how they all relate to the evolution of the show.
When Holbrook began developing his one-man show in the early 1950s, he was a young, unknown actor, performing in school auditoriums and nightclubs.
"I had no reputation," Holbrook said. "I had to prove myself in the first five minutes so they wouldn't get up and leave!"
The show evolved over several years from a short skit into a full-length performance, before it finally premiered off-Broadway in 1959 to instantaneous acclaim.
"I had a tremendous success," said Holbrook. "It was a total shock to me."
Hal Holbrook performs "Mark Twain Tonight!" at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 12, at Castle Theater in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are $30, $45, $60 and $150 for VIP plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or mauiarts.org.
The show was wildly entertaining, but for many it also hit home. Holbrook selected material from Mark Twain's works that reflected the current social and political climate. For instance, when he first developed the show in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum.
"When you read 'Huckleberry Finn' with the Civil Rights Movement looming over your head, churches being burned and people being killed for opposing the treatment of black people, you have to be absolutely blind not to see the application," said Holbrook.
In response to the violent clash over race in the 1950s, Holbrook dramatized several scenes from "Huckleberry Finn" that painted an authentic portrait of racism in the 1830s. They became the climax of the show. Today, Holbrook continues to perform scenes from "Huckleberry Finn," because, as he put it, "The presence, the awareness of racist thinking in our country never leaves us."
In the 1960s, another issue resurfaced that also continues to this day. "Our country has taken it upon herself to go into other countries like Vietnam and then later Iraq and Afghanistan and teach these people how to live," Holbrook said. "We may not like the way these people live, but is it worth going to war, spending billions and billions of dollars, borrowing money from China, putting the country in an economic toilet, is it worth that?"
When Twain critiqued the Philippine-American War at the beginning of the last century, he described a similar political mindset with similar consequences. "When Mark Twain talks about starting wars with other countries to change their way of thinking, people think, 'My God! That's like out of the front pages of the paper!'" he said.
As Holbrook sees it, Mark Twain's material is powerful precisely because he does not "hit you over the head with it." He explained, "It's something I learned very early on with Twain, the power of his persuasion is that he lays a picture of something, he lays an impression, he lays a truth in your lap and then he just walks away."
Holbrook does the same when he impersonates Twain in "Mark Twain Tonight!" "I say, 'Man is the noblest work of God. (Pause) Who found that out?' I turn and go back to the lectern and pretend to be taking notes, and the people have to sit there with this hot potato in their lap . . . His material is almost startling sometimes, but it's funny because it's the truth that nobody says out loud."
Although the show addresses many important issues, "There's a lot of funny stuff in the show that doesn't have to do with serious matters," Holbrook said. "You got to get people laughing. Because he was very funny. He was the first stand-up comic, you might say, in America."
Thanks to Hal Holbrook, Mark Twain's career as a live comedian has outlived him by a hundred years. His material is just as funny and relevant today as it was when he wrote it. History really does repeat itself, but luckily, so do the good jokes.
"A Christmas Carol": Don't miss Maui OnStage's production of "A Christmas Carol." This classic story, revived and retold each Christmas season, follows the crotchety old Ebenezer Scrooge (Mark Collmer) on a journey through his past, present and future on a life-changing Christmas Eve. Charles Dickens crafted the story in 1841 to reinvigorate the focus on the Christmas traditions of generosity, communion and good cheer. Adapted by Tom Frey and directed by Lehua Simon, the show features interludes of Christmas carols sung by a four-part a capella chorus and a talented cast of adults and kids.
"A Christmas Carol" opens this Friday and will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays, Nov. 26 through Dec. 12, at the Historic Iao Theater. Tickets are $18 and $16 for seniors and students. Call 242-6969 for tickets.
Gabriel Iglesias, The Fluffy Shop Tour: Dubbed as unbelievably funny and electrifying, Gabriel Iglesias is a gifted performer who has the ability to consistently deliver a quality comedy experience in every performance. Gabe's clean, animated comedy style has earned him national crossover appeal. Known as the "fluffy" comic in an aloha shirt, the 32-year-old funnyman often riffs about his girthy middle - whether it's talking about how little dancing it takes for him to work up a sweat at the nightclub, or how hearing his girlfriend coo the words "chocolate cake" over the telephone works for him like phone sex, he evokes laughter.
Gabriel Iglesias performs at 7 p.m. Saturday at Castle Theater at the MACC. Tickets are $40 plus applicable fees, available as above.