“He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.” Though the words belong to Jack London, they are aptly suited for describing the jubilance that radiates from solo performer Charlie Bethel as he adapts the iconic American novel, The Call of the Wild as a solo performance to the stage this winter. Arriving just after the flurry of holiday chaos, Bethel returns to Baltimore Theatre Project to deliver his latest one-man adaptation of the literary titans for which he is known.
Though Bethel’s adaptation of The Call of the Wild is separated somewhat from his usual fare, which is of the ancient and mythological literary canon and a fully memorized performance, by its mere existence in both realms of ‘recent’ American literature and the fact that it is being performed as a dramatically invested reading, the performance is an invigorating way to experience the message of London’s masterpiece. Bethel carefully examines, through a judiciously selective abridgment of the text, the core elements of the story. Bethel possesses a masterfully seasoned skillset when it comes to narrative presentation and The Call of the Wild proves to be no challenge in the regard, as it is easy to find one’s self on the edge of the seat, leaning in with baited breath in eager anticipation of the story’s next turn, even when one knows the fate of Buck.
Bethel chooses to frame the story in real time, setting himself as a writer, much like London, at a desk, scribbling away. One cannot expect to do any sort of performance of The Call of the Wild without— at some moment or another— fully embracing, embodying, and portraying Buck, and Bethel does exactly that. Before the story ever truly begins, Bethel— who until that moment is just an ordinary writer at work in his study— feeds the dog and through gesture and mime, transforms before the audience’s affixed eyes into the very canine himself, slobbering away and eating from the bowl of dog food set before him. Bethel’s narrative expression as he careens through London’s tale, fully captures the essence of a story as told from an omniscient overseer of a dog’s point of view.
Though the story gets off to somewhat of rocky start, wherein the reading aspect of the performance is still somewhat noticeable to the point of distraction, as the meat of the story is unpacked, this too fades into the periphery, then the distance, and completely away as Bethel goes double barrel and full speed into the tale. There are jarring moment, both in his reading and thanks to the sound effects he had incorporated, that while they do not draw you out of the momentum of the story, force you into a brutal reality of another kind. Bethel deliberately includes harrowing sound effects to further illustrate the abuse of the dogs in the tale, some of which are stomach-churning just to hear. The intention is to elicit such a response from the audience, but the execution borders on overkill.
Versatile in his performance, living moment to moment with the text as both narrator, writer, overseer, and Buck himself, Bethel manages to bring a palatable, pleasant, and overall impressive performance to the stage this go-round. His investment in the purity of the story’s message is what separates it from other such instances as well as separating it from his other solo performances.
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission