David M. Katzin's American Tragedy, in its premiere by the Duquesne University Red Masquers, is full of surprises. The ambitious production, directed by Duquesne's theater-arts head John E. Lane Jr., is uneven but never unwieldy. Most remarkable, though, is the multi-layered text by Duquesne alum Katzin, using the story, if not all the facts, of a mid-19th century disaster to "look for America."
For real: On May 10, 1849, a production of Macbeth at New York's Astor Opera House was ended by a deadly riot, actuated by a rivalry between two actors. Yes, people took their theater more seriously back then. Tragedy's premise is that the next day, the Macbeth company, at the behest of American tragedian Edwin Forrest, recreates the tale of the feud between him and its leading man, the English William Macready, to settle the question of which is the greater actor. This means that most of the Red Masquers play multiple roles with a chance to shine. It also means that Katzin gets to explore American identity, especially American exceptionalism, in a setting a century before American hegemony.
Thus Forrest is the pivotal character, "heroic" in acting style only, but not short on hubris. Michael McBurney manages to portray him as bombastic and just this side of buffoonish, with a disdain of intellectualism that belies the historical Forrest, but suggests the modern GOP. Opposite him as the older but not stodgy Macready, TJ Firneno dominates the show, delivering a dignified portrait of restraint as the blameless victim of Forrest's (again, ahistorical) paranoia. Also key is Marsha Mayhak as Forrest's much put-upon English-born wife who suffers his anti-English rants, Anglophobia being the hot trend in the U.S. at the time. And a hand to Sarah Weisel as a most versatile seamstress-actor-director and the similarly multi-tasking Jeff Johnston and Christina Loscalzo.
A solid piece of entertainment in the telling of the Astor Place Riot, American Tragedy also delves into the very idea of America.