Arts & Entertainment
'B. Franklin' Theater Review
From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 7
By Ben Miles
Benjamin Franklin is as much a piece of the American cultural quilt as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abe Lincoln, Will Rogers, and Mark Twain. With such published and practical aphorisms as “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail’ and “Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late,” Franklin is a seminal American philosopher, statesman, and inventor – credited with the creation of bifocal glasses for corrective vision; the lighting rod; a flexible catheter device; and the eponymous Franklin stove.
ROBERT LESKO as "B. Franklin" at Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre
Franklin was also the eldest of our nation’s Founding Fathers (while Thomas Jefferson was 33 years old when he completed writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Franklin was 70 when he signed the revolutionary document that same year). Indeed, Franklin has the distinction of being the only individual to sign all four of the documents that helped to build the American Colonies into an independent country – in addition to the Declaration, he lent his signed imprimatur to the Treaty of Alliance, Amity, and Commerce (1778) The Treaty of Paris (1782), and the Constitution (1787). One might reasonably refer to Franklin as the founding grandfather, given his age and long lifetime of accomplishments.
Now this remarkable character is being vividly resurrected by Robert Lesko, in “B. Franklin.” Lesko wrote the script for this intelligent monodrama, but he also performs as Franklin in a manner that seems as much akin to a spiritual channeling as to crafty acting. Directed with meticulous specificity by Bjorn Johnson, and with production values that honor the historical era to the minutest detail, Franklin is not just an 18th century renaissance man; he is a model of manhood for the ages.
We meet Franklin in 1788, at age 82 – two years before his death. He addresses us from his well-appointed sitting room (Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, scenic design). Attired in the fetching wardrobe of the late 1700s (costuming by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; Wig & makeup design by April Metcalf), but plagued with crippling gout and an aching kidney stone, Franklin regales us with stories of his time in London and Paris. In France, Franklin was an exotic celebrity, who charmed the ladies and impressed the men.
But it is Franklin’s slow-growing stand in favor of autonomy for the American Colonies, and ultimately his commitment to seeing the colonies become an independent nation, that drive the narrative of “B. Franklin.” Like the American Civil War some seven decades later, colonial independence was an issue that divided friends and family. In Franklin’s case, a horrible chasm formed between Benjamin and his illegitimate son William. While Benjamin was signing documents and making pronouncements of independence on behalf of the Colonies, William was a loyalist to the British Crown and Royal Governor of New Jersey – appointed by the King of England.
This and other conflicts – like the ones with John Adams, for instance – lend to this solo-show the dramatic heft to carry it through its 100 minutes (not including one 10 minute intermission). With wisdom to spare and history to share, Leskos’s script provides a fount of information, and his characterization is like having Franklin reincarnated before our eyes. As Benjamin Franklin once implored, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” With his one-man play, “B. Franklin,” Lesko has done both.
“B. Franklin” continues at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre through April 27. The Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre is located at 5636 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles. Evening performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, call (800) 838-3006. For online ticketing, visit www.bfranklin.brownpapertickets.com.