Review: ‘The Emperor of North America’ at Silver Spring Stage

Friday night was a very special night at Silver Spring Stage as they opened their 49th Season with Thomas Hischak’s play, The Emperor of North America. This production was presented as part of the American Association of Community Theatre NewPlayFest 2016.

Lena Winter, Brendan Murray, and Lenora Spahn. Photo by Harvey Levine.
Lena Winter, Brendan Murray, and Lenora Spahn. Photo by Harvey Levine.

Every two years AACT chooses seven plays and seven community theaters to present their debuts. Silver Spring Stage was honored to be chosen to perform The Emperor of North America, which is produced by Lennie Magida and Jerry Schuchman. Tonight both Julie Crawford, Executive Director of AACT and Linda Lee, Secretary of AACT were on hand to help open this premiere. The play is a perfect match for Silver Spring Stage which is known for its quirky and edgy productions.

The Emperor of North America is an absurdist comedy about modern relationships, the movie industry, writing for today’s readers and, of course, the Emperor, Joshua Norton. Norton lived in San Francisco in the 19th Century. He was a failed entrepreneur who proclaimed himself first Emperor of the United States and then of all of North America. He became a folk hero in San Francisco. So, when Hischak decided to make him a central figure a drama, he found that there were many stories, operas, songs, comic books, and even video games about Norton. The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company even named a sundae after him. Instead, Hischak’s play revolves around Leo, a writer of modern novels and scripts who is endeavoring to do a biography about this unusual character.

Indeed, Norton appears on stage several times, including the opening scene, to tell us about his strange delusion which included letters to President Lincoln and Queen Victoria. Meanwhile, Leo has been asked to write a novel, based on a screenplay which is based on the novel by Tolstoy, War and Peace. Tolstoy, and this novel in particular have always been Leo’s creative inspiration. Even his parrot is named Pierre after a character in the book.

As Leo ponders whether to write the book due to financial needs and tries to write the biography, he has to deal with a kind, but pushy agent, Sylvia, a pregnant, unmarried daughter, Molly, who lives with her divorced dad, and supportive girlfriend who would like to marry him, Rita, and a father who is suffering from dementia and lives in a nursing facility. Leo also must deal with his own health concerns and a mute parrot.

Characters from the screenplay, as well as Norton, appear to Leo throughout the play portrayed by the actors who appear in the aforementioned roles. However, it never gets confusing or dull as the playwright keeps the humor flowing in witty prose, that made me and the audience laughing throughout all the emotional ups and downs.

Director Scott Bloom craftily stages the scenes with the Tolstoy characters and Norton to blur the lines between reality and imagination without confusing the viewer. He uses a platform for a scene that take place outside Leo’s residence and outside reality. As Leo’s reality becomes blurred, the characters blur the boundaries of the writer’s home and his mind by physically leaving the platform. It is one thing to direct a play that people have seen, but directing one that no one has ever produced takes a special talent, and Bloom is up to that challenge.

Brendan Murray plays Leo, and does a superb job creating this conflicted man who wants to be a legitimate writer, but who also yearns for financial stability. He makes us understand his yearning to write a novel about this great Russian work – one that the masses will want to read. Murray also brings out the warmth of his character who loves his daughter and his longtime girlfriend, as well as his failing father.

Ted Culler plays Norton I and Leo’s dad. He strikes both a dignified but comic pose as Norton and wonderfully walks the tightrope by keeping them both from becoming figures of ridicule as we laugh at their dialogue. In one scene – as Norton he hears that Ballasco is doing a play about him that is somewhat mocking – Culler takes us from the hurt to humor without demeaning the “emperor.”

Pamela Northrup. Photo by Harvey Levine.
Pamela Northrup. Photo by Harvey Levine.

Pamela Northrup plays multiple roles, but her primary character is Leo’s agent, Sylvia. She more than capably handles her snappy dialogue, but also allows us to see the genuine warmth and concern she feels for her client.

As Molly, Lenora Spahn is terrific in making us see Leo through the eyes of his 20 something daughter who moved in with dad  a few years earlier. Molly adores her dad but is learning he is a complicated man, especially while he is writing. Spahn has raised Molly to become a strong and spirited woman. Her most moving scene occurs when she visits her grandfather in a nursing home. Spahn also appears a Natasha from the novel.

Lena Winter, also playing dual roles, is Rita – the glue that helps keep Leo going. She is a bright realtor who keeps Leo’s razzing about her profession from outwardly upsetting her, but his refusal to make the relationship permanent crescendos in an outpouring of emotion in Act II when all Rita’s pent up hurts and insecurities are revealed to Leo. Winter makes this one of the most memorable moments in the play.

Andrew S. Greenleaf has created a totally functional set, allowing for smooth scene changes and also creating the flavor of Leo’s home, an old cider mill. Jim Robertson’s lighting design handles the scene changes and helps to highlight Norton whether he is acting in his own time or in present day. Robertson’s excellent lighting is essential in setting the mood of this absurdist drama, and his fine work contributes much to the production.

Costumes were expertly designed by Erin Bone Steele, who had a huge challenge as the characters go from the 1800’s attire to present day.

Ted Culler and Brendan Murray. Photo by Harvey Levine.
Ted Culler and Brendan Murray. Photo by Harvey Levine.

Although this is the first production of The Emperor of North America, I am confident that this witty drama that gives us insight into the human condition, and entertains us as well, will have many future productions.

Silver Spring Stage’s superb production of The Emperor of North America is a must see and should not be missed!

Running Time: Two hours, with an intermission.


The Emperor of North America plays weekends through October 1, 2016, at Silver Spring Stage – 10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD, in the Woodmoor Shopping Center. For tickets, purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1550.gif


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