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THEATER REVIEWS : Scripts Confine Adventurers' Spirits : Two one-man shows unexpectedly complement each other, but more because of the observations of authors Richard Henry Dana and Jack London than anything the actors try.

July 16, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"What a nice summer thing to do," my companion said.

And it is, driving to Dana Point Harbor to see Daniel Trent play author-sailor-lawyer Richard Henry Dana in "Two Years Before the Mast," then dash a couple of miles to San Juan Capistrano's Camino Real Playhouse to see Tom Scott as writer Jack London in "Wolf! Jack London Remembers."

Under the late-afternoon sky, with a sea breeze blowing across the deck of the Pilgrim (a 20th-Century replica of the ship Dana took from Boston to San Francisco in 1834), Trent's show is especially a nice summer thing to do.

Whether his or Scott's shows are especially good theater is another matter. Combined, each piece supports and comments on the other in fascinating and unexpected ways, but it is an excitement generated purely by the authors themselves rather than by anything these actors do to enlarge on them.

The one obvious contrast between the performances is how Trent's is all atmosphere, Cinemascope-like images and charming costume changes, while Scott's is a personal chat in a closed room.

In Scott's case, this is ironic, as London's fiction ("Call of the Wild," "The Sea Wolf") was generally set in a wild, natural world filled with two types: survivors and the dead.

Dana's career, outside of his two-year adventure, was very much in closed rooms, where the Harvard-trained lawyer defended sailors, indigents and blacks fleeing slavery. The sites for these performances do not tell everything about their subjects.

Both actors, too, have problems with their sites.

Trent begins the show as the older Dana lecturing to a group of the Pioneer Society of California, but once he strips down to his sailor gear and starts running around the ship, we can imagine this actor as Billy Budd.

Still, it's a shame that Trent, on board the closest thing to Dana's actual ship, can't climb the rigging as the action dictates. Instead, Trent mimes the scared rookie sailor contending with the ropes. What a set; what a way not to use it.

(An official of the Orange County Marine Institute, where the Pilgrim is docked, said only qualified crew members are allowed in the rigging. Additionally, crew are required to wear safety belts, which would not be in keeping with Trent's aim to keep the show historically accurate, the official said.)

In fact, Trent uses very little of the Pilgrim, but whether that is because of the poor audience sight lines, insurance considerations or just a lack of imagination is impossible to tell. (Hint: Arrive early, and sit in the front row.) A director with a sense of environmental theater might help make Trent's self-directed "Two Years" a real adventure for everybody, actor included.

Scott could also use a director, but for different reasons.

While Trent, who has been performing "Two Years" since 1981, has a firm grasp on his characters, Scott is still grappling with London, beginning with precisely where London is supposed to be.

Scott's London casually talks about his formative years, books, politics and ideas, sometimes beside a desk or in a chair. He refers to this place as his library, but there are no book-lined cases, just a bland, light blue backdrop. London in heaven, perhaps? (He is dead as he talks to us, after all.)

London the writer was a firm believer in setting revealing character, something Scott needs to follow.

Once he does, he might find a way of settling into this outrageously complex man--socialist, outdoorsman, raconteur, wordsmith, white supremacist and male chauvinist. Scott clearly takes pleasure in disturbing his audience with an opening diatribe against nonwhites ("Will the Indian or Negro ever conquer the Northmen? Never!").

It's a way of shocking a crowd out of its complacency about a one-person show: The message is that this won't be another Hal Holbrook-Mark Twain love fest.

But Scott never takes the shock anywhere and loses his subject's galvanizing spark. He comes dangerously close to reciting passages from the material he assembled into the text for "Wolf!" and later only weakly introduces the irritating pain in the liver that finally killed London.

There is often so little to look at in "Wolf!" that you wonder if Scott's piece might not be better served on radio.

Trent's piece, as we have noted, is about as un-radio as you can get, and not just because of the ship.

This is a stage actor's show: Trent playfully and openly changes costumes and characters in Dana's diary-like account, and the putting on of an accessory or the stripping of a mustache and sideburns becomes Trent's way of suggesting the changes Dana imposed on himself.

Trent's abbreviated adaptation (with Victor Pinheiro) of Dana's long work stresses again and again that the privileged young Bostonian did not have to put himself through the pain and terror of a sailor's life.

Dana wanted this, and Trent is best at suggesting the unquenchable thirst for life experience with no set goal: a man Jack London would well understand.

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