Back in 2004, Seattle’s Intiman Theater launched its American Cycle — a five-year commitment to producing one great American text per season. At that time, the plan to stage Adrian Hall’s adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” in 2008, an election year, seemed sensible enough. But no one could have imagined how acutely relevant Warren’s tale would be during this particular campaign season.
“All the King’s Men” chronicles the rise of Willie Stark (John Procaccino), a populist demagogue loosely modeled on Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long. In Stark, Warren created a flesh-and-blood example of a man who taps into America’s deep strain of anti-intellectualism to realize his own boundless political ambitions.
The themes of the story are as close to us as today’s breaking news: a government that rules by fear and folksiness; executive powers expanded to the breaking point; noble ends cited to justify questionable means.
Hall’s adaptation is a big, big play, and director Pam MacKinnon rolls it out in grand fashion. Tony Cisek’s towering set of pillars and scaffolding, backed by a shadowy American flag, dominates the stage. And every corner is alive, with a cast of 18 actors doubling as singers and musicians (Hall’s version calls for the inclusion of songs from Randy Newman’s 1974 “Good Old Boys,” arranged here by Edd Key).
At the center is Leo Marks’ breathtaking performance as Jack Burden, playing the jaded journalist on Stark’s payroll as though he was born in a fedora with a reporter’s notebook in one hand. Everything about Marks’ characterization — from the whip-cracking cadences of his speech to the stillness of his stance — draws you into Burden’s world.
It’s a perf so riveting it might unbalance some productions, but Marks has worthy foils in Procaccino as the bullying, braying Stark; Deirdre Madigan as Stark’s smart-mouthed assistant Sadie; and Lori Larsen (looking remarkably like Bette Davis) as Burden’s eccentric mother.
At just over three hours including intermission, the play threatens to be too long for casual consumption. But by the end, MacKinnon has made a convincing case for “All the King’s Men” — not just as a powerful political parable, but as a rich meditation on life, destiny and free will.