After successive weeks of stress over the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, people arrived at work on Dec. 14 and quietly considered the meanings of the speeches they had heard broadcast the night before. As they mulled over the stately Gore concession and the appeal from President-elect Bush for national unity, many struggled to shake off the notion that the political and judicial systems had somehow fallen short of their expectations.
All the more timely, then, to open a package announcing MJT’s January premiere of Mark R. Giesser’s new comedy, Code of the West. Giesser, who does well adapting anecdotal U.S. history in his plays (The Night They Buried Washington, Pledge of Allegiance, Hansen’s Cab), has embraced the legend of this country’s only monarch, Joshua A. Norton I, the self-proclaimed “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Emperor Norton, or the “Emp” as he was referred to by his fellow residents in San Francisco, announced his rule on Sept. 17, 1859.
Norton I ruled until his death on January 8, 1880 when he collapsed at California Street and Grant Avenue in San Francisco. In his two-decade reign, Norton I went from losing a $250,000 fortune gambling on the rice market to making alliances in the arts and distinguishing himself by calling for alternatively visionary or outrageous innovations and changes.
After assuming his regal persona—featuring public appearances in an old military uniform and various donated accessories, Norton I played his part in earnest. He became an icon in San Francisco; after a policeman arrested him for the purpose of mandating his treatment as a mental case, the citizenry protested widely on the “Emp’s” behalf. The police chief apologized publicly and, according to biographical clips, rank and file officers throughout San Francisco took to saluting Norton I on a regular basis.
“I’d have to call him one of America’s quintessential eccentrics and then one of America’s most original thinkers,” said playwright and director Geisser. Giesser told Playbill On-Line that his Victorian-era story also holds deep meaning for women. In Code, the character Violet Allerton finds herself about to be seriously disinherited unless she marries a man “bearing a title of nobility.” Allerton picks Emperor Norton. “I try to look for stories that have some parallel for us in our contemporary world,” Giesser said. “In this particular case, we’re dealing with women who have to deal with some serious social constraints in order to achieve independence for themselves.”
Giesser said Code of the West has been workshopped extensively prior to this Off-Broadway debut. His choice of integrating a self proclaimed U.S. ruler in the play was coincidental and pre-dated the real life 2000 election crisis in the United States.
Even so, the parallels that can be drawn between Norton I’s more familiar “proclamations” and certain contemporary events are often amusing. In the mid-1800’s Norton I “dismissed” Virginia Governor Wise and “replaced” him with Kentucky’s John C. Breckenridge; he asked that a “suspension bridge” be built between San Francisco and Marin County; he called on San Franciscans to finance “airship experiments” by Frederick Marriott and — frustrated with political strife — for the dissolution of both the republican and democratic parties, as well as the United States itself.
The cast for Code of the West will be Jordan Charney (Shadowland, Talley’s Folly, The Birthday Party), Bradley Cole (Princeton Shakespeare Festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Linda Ewing (OB’s The Night They Buried Washington), Mark McDonough (OB’s Armchair in Hell, Dream Girl, Childe Byron) and Elisabeth Zambetti (Summer and Smoke).
The creative team comprises Obie-winning scenic designer John C. Scheffler, costume designer Melanie Ann Schmidt and lighting designer Aaron Meadow.
Tickets are $30. For info and tickets call Ticket Central at (212) 279 4200.
— By Murdoch McBride