Richard Burton makes a cameo in ‘Playing Burton’ at Scena

By Jakob Cansler

This article was first published in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

There are, I would guess, two kinds of people who might be interested in a play like Playing Burton, a one-man show about the life of Richard Burton

The first would be someone who has a particular interest in Burton, someone who already knows a lot about the star of stage and screen and wants to see him brought to life and maybe learn a thing or two about him.

The other would be someone who is less interested in Burton specifically and more interested in the larger themes present in Burton’s life ⁠— fame, celebrity, tragedy, etc. ⁠— and what they can tell us about humanity.

Both are technically present in Playing Burton. Unfortunately, neither are executed in a particularly compelling or dynamic way, even as glimmers of a more effective show appear from time to time.

Playing Burton, which was written and directed by Mark Jenkins first in 1992 and is now being presented by Scena Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, begins with radio reports of the famed actor’s death in 1984. Burton, played by Brian Mallon, appears in the darkness to tell us his story. In a stream-of-consciousness monologue, he weaves his way through his life: how he was born Richard Jenkins, how he grew up in Wales and was adopted by Philip Burton, who taught him to speak and act. He recounts his rise to fame, his critics, his marriages, his affairs, his adventures, his alcoholism.

He jumps from moment to moment quickly, picking up subjects and dropping them like toys to keep his mind busy. Sometimes that means reenactments. Sometimes it means tableaus. Often, it feels like you might be one step behind.

There isn’t any information in this show that can’t be found elsewhere. Frankly, most of it can be found on Burton’s Wikipedia page. But there is, at least in theory, something to be said for embodying a memory rather than reading it. A Wikipedia page has, after all, just two dimensions. Live theater has three.

In an ideal world, Playing Burton would bring the man and the myth to life ⁠— to present us with an understanding of Burton that can only be experienced live.

Unfortunately, Jenkin’s script doesn’t ever quite succeed in doing so. Burton’s oration relies heavily on telling rather than showing. He reveals the things that happened to him but rarely communicates how he feels about it. That makes for a monologue that often feels like a lecture, like a professor who gets distracted and starts talking about their personal life.

To be sure, Mallon’s performance does feel life-like. He puts on an impersonation of Burton that does seem three-dimensional in nature. It is an embodiment that is necessary for a show like this, but one that also requires a strong foundation in the script, and that foundation is largely missing.

The staging, too, doesn’t give much of a foundation for Mallon to build a dynamic performance off of. The bare-bones set by Carl Gudenius serves its purpose well, but doesn’t offer much beyond basic functionality. The staging, too, often appears either arbitrary or monotonous ⁠— long sections are delivered standing in one spot.

Still, there are certainly moments when Playing Burton seems to find some narrative to tie all these disparate recounts and tableaus together. In particular, there is the repeated theme of Richard-Burton-as-a-Shakespearean-character. He played, after all, many famed Shakespearean heroes in his life, and he longed to play more. In Jenkins’ play, Burton sees his life through the lenses of King Richard III, of Hamlet, of Macbeth. Burton likens himself to them and their fame, power, and influence. He perhaps also likens himself to their tragedy.

There is a similar recurring theme likening Burton to an invented character. “The greatest role Richard Jenkins ever played,” he says, as if he somehow separated from his true self and became a persona in order to achieve the fame he desired. This raises questions: Does Burton regret leaving his old self behind? Was the fame worth the sacrifice? Is Jenkins gone forever?

The latter theme is clearly the more compelling, but it is also less explored, relegated to a few minor references. It’s a shame, because it is in those moments that the potential of Playing Burton becomes visible.

As a result, either type of person interested in a play like Playing Burton will surely find suggestions of what they are looking for, but also a disappointment that the show rarely capitalizes on those suggestions to become the more compelling work that it could be.

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