Edwin Booth, more than just the 'other brother' thanks to Iannone

September 2, 2018

Kimberly Laberge

When Americans hear the words "Booth" and "theatre" in the same sentence, the natural instinct is to recall the tragic events of April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes pulled the trigger at Ford's Theatre and forever altered the course of US history.

However, Angela Iannone's cycle of original works follows not the assassin, but the tormented brother left behind: Edwin Booth. He wears the hats of brother and friend, son and husband, widower and father. Edwin pioneered the naturalistic method of acting, the results of which we still see in entertainment today. 

And, in April 1879, Mark Grey made an attempt on Edwin Booth's life, firing towards the actor during his fifth act soliloquy as Richard II. This was 14 years after the Lincoln assassination. On that night, and that night alone, Edwin made an unscripted change of blocking, shifting the target and narrowly surviving the attack.

Iannone's play, This Prison Where I Live, delves into the psyche of Edwin on this very day. What compelled a notoriously calculated actor to stand up in a scene where he had always sat? What forces beyond himself were protecting Edwin that evening?

In Iannone's interpretation, Edwin is visited by the ghost of his departed brother and first wife, as well as his living wife and an assassin under the guise of an avid admirer of the stage. This small cast is truly without flaw. Each character further sheds additional light onto the lesser known Booth. TheateRED's take on the piece explores the uncharted depths of the infamous killer's brother.

At the heart of the play are brothers Edwin (Jared McDaris) and John (Cory Jefferson Hagen). The duo bears striking resemblance to their historical counterparts, at the hands of costume designer Leah Dueno and hair, wig, and makeup designer Eric Welch:

Hagen and McDaris play perfect foils to one another. McDaris is tempered with his delivery. He brings Edwin's naturalistic style to the interpretation of the reserved character, which elaborates the desperation as Edwin descends into madness.

As each of the characters drifts in and out of his cognition, McDaris acts as a canvas onto which each paints their ideal Booth, until Edwin is at last reunited with the one who loves him without pretense. Andrea Chastant Burkholder's pantomime as Edwin's lost love draws out his innermost heartbreaks.

Hagen, on the other hand, is suave and charming. His swagger lives up to the renowned character he portrays. Never without his iconic smirk, John always knows how to break through Edwin's high walls.

Iannone has written teasing interjections throughout the script, and Hagen slips them in seamlessly - never taking away from the plot at hand, but always inserting enough humor to keep the show from becoming a melodrama. The result is a constantly fluctuating piece that effortlessly moves between tension and release, passion and pain. 
Iannone's script draws from the quick pace and intellectuality of the classic theatre it presents; characters finish each others' sentences as Shakespeare had done in many of his couplets, and clever Easter eggs are dropped throughout in a Strindberg style. Yet, the playwright tailors her direction to the short attention span of a modern audience. The action at hand fluidly navigates the simple set (by Christopher Elst), masterfully maneuvering Tenth Street Theatre's intimate space.

Marcee Doherty-Elst, as second wife Mrs. Mary McVicker Booth, depicts the rarely discussed topic of a woman who domestically abuses her husband. Nine years following the death of her baby, Mary has fallen into "fits" at the cause of her opioid usage, Edwin being a frequent victim. Audiences are faced with an uncomfortable reality, and Doherty-Elst brings despair to the wife's delusion that humanizes what could otherwise be vilified.

As the show culminates in the imminent attempt on Edwin's life, Brandon Haut brings the complexities of Mark Gray to life. While history keeps audiences informed of his intent, Haut keeps patrons engaged in the tale of Mr. Gray, invested somewhere between his truths and lies. The pressure he places on Edwin prior to the Richard II performance is palpable, and as he turns to bashful neurotics, theatregoers are swept into the very real threat.
There is no way to retrospectively regard the Booth acting legacy without acknowledging the actions of John Wilkes. The blood shed in Ford's Theatre has stained history beyond repair. Angela Iannone, however, with each work in her Booth cycle, brings Americans closer to sympathizing with those who sought to better the nation through the arts - and don't we all only hope to do the same?


This Prison Where I Live runs through September 9th at the Tenth Street Theatre. See theater-red.com for more information.


Theater RED production. 2018

"On the surface, Iannone's play appears to be little more than a historical ghost story, but underneath it asks tough questions about ambition, forgiveness and redemption."  Kevin Zimmerman, TimesLedger Newspapers

'This Prison Where I Live' Examines the Torment of John Wilkes Booth’s Brother

AUG. 27, 2018

11:24 A.M. 


“I can’t find a quiet place within me... this prison where I live,” laments the well-known 19th century stage actor Edwin Booth at the end of This Prison Where I Live. For Booth is one tortured soul; despondent over the death of his first wife while despising the second; forgetting his lines playing the lead in Shakespeare’s Richard II; and most all, brother to one of the most infamous killers in history—John Wilkes Booth. JWB assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. And the rest, as they say, is history. But the effects of that history on the remaining members of the Booth family are always present—and lingering nearby, even 14 years later.

In the Midwest premiere by Theater RED, This Prison Where I Live is based on the life events of the other famous Booth brother, Edwin, during a run of Richard II.

Written and directed by well-known and highly respected actor Angela Iannone, This Prison pulls in the audience from the start as Booth rehearses and JWB shows up—as a ghost. But other worlds aside, they are after all, brothers. So the family rivalry— and love/hate aspects that follow—set in, making for an engrossing drama with well-informed writing, stellar acting and spot-on direction, all in 95 minutes.

Cory Jefferson Hagen is the ghostly John Wilkes, sassy with a southern drawl, knowing exactly how to push his mortal brother to the edge and then pull back—just enough to keep the game going. It’s a fascinating performance to watch, as is Jared McDaris as Edwin, who refused to speak JWB’s name after the assassination. Edwin survived his own assassin who tried to shoot him during a performance. Brandon Haut’s depiction of shooter Mark Gray is perfectly creepy, filled with the requisite tension of emotional unraveling; even his ill-fitting suit and twitching hands signal trouble ahead for the already tortured Edwin. Marcee Doherty-Elst is Edwin’s smothering second wife, her initial guise of sanity slipping into a maelstrom of madness. Andrea Burkholder rounds out the solid cast as the silent ghost of first wife, Mollie.

For lovers of Shakespeare and American history, This Prison Where I Live provides one solution as to why Edwin survived his own assassination attempt. Yet, he still remains in a prison of his own making, which only he can release himself from—if he dares.

Through Sept. 9 at the Tenth Street Theater, 628 N. 10th St. For more information, visit www.theaterred.com

BWW Review: THIS PRISON WHERE I LIVE Brings the Brothers Booth to Theater RED

by Kelsey Lawler Aug. 31, 2018  
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[BWW Review: THIS PRISON WHERE I LIVE Brings the Brothers Booth to Theater RED]

Who is Edwin Booth? If you're a theater fiend or know a thing or two about 19th century American history, you may have some idea. And if not, it comes as little surprise. As the brother of President Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, Edwin falls under a notorious shadow, despite being worthy of remembrance in his own right.

Edwin Booth was arguably the most acclaimed Shakespearean actor of his day, and that's partly why Director and playwright Angela Iannone feels compelled to tell his story. Making its midwest debut at Theater RED, This Prison Where I Live is one in Iannone's four-play Booth Cycle, with two more pieces currently in the works.

How one woman can work behind the scenes to craft such an eloquent and compelling script, while also finding the time to act on stage, is utterly amazing. During a Talk Back, Iannone all but said she felt intrinsically bound to Edwin Booth, as if the universe bestowed upon her the task of bringing him out from behind the eclipse of his evil brother. Edwin, Iannone summed up, was an incredible performer, American, and contributor to the arts; a man deserving of his own place in history, apart from his family ties.

In This Prison Where I Live, we meet Edwin Booth (Jared McDaris) at a Chicago theater in 1879. He's rehearsing lines for Shakespeare's Richard II, when he's repeatedly interrupted by the ghosts of his past - his brother John Wilkes (Cory Jefferson Hagen) and first wife Mollie (Andrea Chastant Burkholder) - and the snares of his present - second wife Mary (Marcee Doherty-Elst) and the uninvited Mark Gray (Brandon Haut, marvelously nerve wracking).

Though Theater RED's tenets include "substantial roles for women," the on-stage female parts in this production are actually quite small - but they're not insignificant. Edwin's wives represent a portion of the titular prison: Mollie grasps him in the guilt of unsaid goodbyes, while Mary's unhinged mental state imprisons his daily existence. Though she has just one line of dialogue, Burkholder's Mollie silently entrances, while Doherty-Elst's Mary is verbose, imperious, and unmistakably mad.

But the ladies must make way for the Booth brothers, without whom this show couldn't be an excellent one. In reality, picking a favorite Booth requires no thought - but picking a favorite in This Prison Where I Live? It's too close to call.

McDaris exudes all the spellbinding conviction of a renowned thespian, while simultaneously crumbling within the confines of Edwin's mental and emotional distress. As for Hagen, he brings such Southern swagger, humor, and charm to John Wilkes, you almost forget how the man's actions shattered America in 1865. The two men play off each other with wonderful ease, capturing a brotherly bond that's believable and complex.

Throughout the cast, there's a certain theatricality to each actor's delivery. Although some moments may come off as a bit over zealous, they nearly always coalesce to serve the mood of the play as a whole. Iannone's articulate, commanding spirit comes through in the characters she's written and the actors she's directed.

Going into Theater RED, I was one of those who knew very little of Edwin Booth, apart from his villainous brother. I left This Prison Where I Live contemplating a life lived in another's history-shattering wake. Iannone's achievement, beyond the work itself and assembling such a stellar group of creatives, lies in encouraging a curiosity for histories both infamous and intimate.

Photo credit: Traveling Lemur Productions

Photo credit; Traveling Lemur -  Cory Jefferson Hagen as John Wilkes and Jared McDaris as Edwin Booth T

"an engrossing drama with well-informed writing, stellar acting and spot-on direction, all in 95 minutes. "

The Edwin Booth Plays

      ​by Angela Iannone

This Prison Where I Live 

Premiere Titan Theatre Company Queens, NY

Staged Reading Door Shakespeare Company, Bailey's Harbor, Wisconsin 

Forward Theatre Company, Madison Wi. -New Play Series, Staged Reading

Second Act New Works, St. George, Utah-featured playwright, Staged Reading

On the surface, Angela Iannone’s play, “This Prison Where I Live,” appears to be little more than an historical ghost story, but underneath it asks tough questions about ambition, forgiveness and redemption.

Titan Theatre Co. presents the world premiere of this piece at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City through Sunday.
In the second play of a planned trilogy to focus on Edwin Booth, the 19th-century actor and older brother of a presidential assassin, Iannone sets the action at the McVicker’s Theater in Chicago 14 years after Abraham Lincoln’s murder.
Act I begins with Edwin, played by Reese Madigan, running through the prison scene in “Richard II.” But for Edwin, rehearsals mean more than line readings, he also mechanically speaks the stage directions, creating less of a performance and more of a going-through-the-motions exhibition.
Madigan, who possesses the leading-man looks of the real Edwin, plays it straight, creating some funny bits of stage work. Edwin walks through the part of Richard, thereby creating the acting sin of not being present in the moment. Every gesture is the same. No movement varies. He is a prisoner of his own performance, which later has possible dire consequences.
As a younger actor, Edwin was renowned for his performances in “Hamlet.” It’s appropriate that the prince seemingly unable to move himself to action — “To be or not to be” — is the character most linked to Edwin.
Edwin is also a prisoner of his own mind, where the ghosts of his dead wife and little brother, John Wilkes, continue to visit him but do not offer solace as much as mental anguish.
Susan Maris plays Edwin’s dead wife, Mary “Mollie” Devlin, as a nearly mute vision. Edwin clings to Mollie, even as his new wife, Mary McVicker, played by Tressa Preston, suffers from mental illness and longs for him to be present in their marriage.
As John Wilkes, Tristan Colton actually creates a rather likeable character — for a murderer who nearly destroyed the nation.
His John Wilkes is funny, foul-mouthed and smart. Born into an acting dynasty, John Wilkes entered the family business less for the love of performing than as a way to meet and bed women. He was also pushed into it by Edwin, who saw a great actor in the younger man where one most likely never existed.
Into the mix, Iannone throws in a younger man, Mark Grey, who appears at the theater to ask Edwin for advice and counsel.
The young man says he is gravely ill and worried that he does not know how to face his mortality. Incidentally, in 1879 a man named Mark Grey attended a performance of “Richard II” in Chicago and tried to kill Edwin Booth by firing two shots at the stage — both missed the target, which for some reason altered his character’s movements that night.
Mark believes because Edwin has played so many characters who face death with “blithe and carelessness” the actor is an expert at how to die.
Edwin attempts to humor Mark, who begins to ask the actor if he is ready to die. Then during the following performance just as Edwin begins, Mark fires two shots at the stage where the actor would normally sit for the duration of the speech. But Edwin didn’t stay stuck in his usual spot.
It is right at that point that Edwin finally seems to realize he is ready to unstick his life and to let go of the past and its ghosts.
He sends Mary McVicker to stay with her parents until she regains her grasp on reality and accepts that their son, Edgar, died in childbirth and wasn’t taken away by Edwin to punish her.
And the great actor decides it is even time to forgive his brother and finally mentions his name for the first time in more than a decade when he says, “I love you, Johnny.”
Iannone’s fictionalized account of the Booth family and their tragedies, both public and private, provides a sometimes funny and often thought-provoking look at what it means to be in the present while honoring the past.

All photos by Lloyd Mulvey