Edinburgh Fringe 2011
An entertaining and ultimately quite moving farce from Red Tie Productions (from LA) loosely based on the historical rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse which led to the botched first execution by electric chair.
Entering the unlovely C eca – cramped, hot and airless, despite the distractingly noisy extractor fans so beloved of C venues – we are welcomed by two clown-like hobos, Trog (Isaac Wade) and Clay (Coco Kleppinger). The former bears a resemblance to Frasier from the TV sitcom of that name, the later is a girl playing a lusty boy, which just about works once the initial confusion is overcome.
Like most clowns they are hungry, and have come up with a rather wacky scheme for earning some money to buy food. Like most clowns in the theatre since Samuel Becket, they indulge in witty philosophical banter, some of which is rather amusing but much of which couled be cut resulting in some improvement to the play.
Their scheme for earning money is to catch dogs to sell to Thomas Edison – yes that Thomas Edison – who plans to electrocute the dogs using the AC electricity championed by his rival George Westinghouse to demonstrate the danger of his rival’s system over his own favoured DC current. (In the end history was not on Edison’s side in the War of Currents).
Edison was not averse to using dirty tricks and while he was against capital punishment he recommended Westinghouse’s AC system be used for the first execution of a man by instantaneous humane electrocution, and tried (unsuccessfully) to coin the term ‘Westinghoused’ as the modern equivalent of ‘Guillotined’.
And so, on August 6, 1890, William Kemmler became the first man to die in the electric chair, his executioners misjudging the voltage required and the ghastly procedure lasting eight horrific minutes.
Michael Vukadinovich’s play Trog and Clay (an imagined
history of the electric chair) takes a few liberties with history in order to create an entertaining farce. Unhistorically Vukadinovich introduces Westinghouse’s wife Marguerite, played with gusto by Paige Lindsey White, as the lynch pin femme fatale who is having an affair with Edison and induces the hapless Kemmler to dispatch his wife with a hatchet so that they can be together as he thinks, but really to provide a condemned man for the purpose of Edison’s plot.
The cast of six manage to keep the story moving along briskly, despite the cramped conditions not aiding their exits and entrances. The actors all seem to be having fun, which is good in a farce, but there is also a sad and shocking denouement (no pun intended).
From the Fringe programme blurb I really didn’t know what to expect of this show, but I had hoped it might be one of those rare unassuming gems to be discovered hidden in an unlikely venue a bit off the beaten track. It didn’t quite match up to my high hopes, but I would certainly recommend it for good entertainment value, for delving into an interesting bit of history, and for Sean Lewellyn’s moving performance as the hapless patsy Kemmler, whose botched execution is played with some seriousness and leaves a lingering impression.