In the days before radio, television or internet access — say during the late 19th century — the traveling exhibition was an event. People would turn out in droves to see feats of skill and strength, marvel at the freaks on display, or see what new miracle product the salesmen peddled. More often than not, the bearded lady was a phony and that snake oil never did make your hair grow back, but the spectacle and the outrageous experience was what made the shows so much fun. Operating out of a stage within a travel trailer, the Virginia Theatre Machine attempts to capture that same spirit while educating its audience on the dangers of mercury consumption in “A Mercurial Roadshow,” premiering as part of the International Mercury Expo at the College of William and Mary.
An original work by director Mark Lerman and designer Jeremy Woodward, “A Mercurial Roadshow” is nothing if not remarkably presented. With a company of three actors doing the legwork, the miniscule performance space becomes a broadcast room, replete with standards representing old-time radio visually: props to provide sound effects, big silver microphones and inopportune public service announcements. A small light marquee and a contingent of props handled by the characters with, well, mercurial swiftness, add to the style and the atmosphere. As Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre Company presents a tale of the liquid metal slowly seeping into the earth, an apparent Martian invasion takes place in Virginia. This side story is clearly an homage to Welles’s scaring the populace into hysteria with his “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938, although comparing that watershed work to Lerman and Woodward’s “Roadshow” would be a mistake. Where Welles intended for his radio drama to fully engross the listeners into the story of an alien invasion, Lerman and Woodward have a dual purpose — to teach all attending about how a poisonous metal enters the ecosystem and to entertain the audience while doing so.
Unfortunately, the former motive is achieved haphazardly at best, and the latter is only occasionally a success. “A Mercurial Roadshow” is unique in that it blatantly pushes its message while muddling what exactly its message is. The audience is given an abundance of information on mercury: what it is, how people ingest it, and what happens when they do. Not only is the vast majority of this data near the beginning of the show — when those watching want to know quite so much so quickly — but the last act of the production completely contradicts assurances made in the first, so that the meaning of the whole enterprise is utterly lost by the time the curtain falls. The audience is told not to be afraid, then to be afraid of what mercury can bring. An authority figure who says that the metal isn’t so bad eats her tuna-fish sandwich with four arms — an attempt at irony — but the arms are never shown to be anything but advantageous. The very last lines of the show, in fact, imply that mercury is, above all, a good thing to have in our bodies. Such vacillating on the subject of the story, and the Expo itself, may prove an unwelcome lesson to those in attendance.
But, the production is still a sight to see. The three hardworking actors give endearing performances, playing a multitude of parts and providing warm and comic moments to the plodding and overlong script. Ed Whitacre as Orson Welles is deep-throated and full of bluster. Welles’s talent for rapturous storytelling is portrayed particularly well by Whitacre, who livens up long passages full of facts and figures with a showman’s flair. Mary Wadkins, as the long-suffering sound effects, has deft comic timing and shuffles through her demanding role with ease. And Connor Hogan ’10 as a young assistant, along with many other characters, quite cleverly plays the dunce. All three players move through the complicated show without missing a beat, impressing and entertaining where the show proper falls short.
Its achievements in technical skill and performance aside, “A Mercurial Roadshow” makes the fatal error of putting too many eggs in one basket. Without a strong thematic focus, the educational aspect of the show is underwhelming, and amounts to little more than a well-executed mess. While the Virginia Theatre Machine has shown promise in the past with its adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” this new show fails to live up to that lofty standard. This “Roadshow” may not be the work of a snake oil peddler, and after advertising one thing and delivering another, some people might demand a refund.