In the play “Franklinland,” Benjamin Franklin is a man of many ideas and ideals. He is an avid inventor and a fellow with no shortage of appetites. And, as portrayed by Erik Sandvold in Curious Theatre Company’s amusing production of Lloyd Suh’s history-poking play, he’s not about to let you forget it.
Beneath a curly, shoulder-length wig, Sandvold relishes the grandiosity and enthusiasm of one of the United States’ founding fathers. That he’s not a particularly encouraging father is cause for consideration, consternation and comedy. In fact, the person who Ben, 46, harangues most with his ambitions and his feats is his illegitimate and understandably hapless son, 20-year-old William Franklin (played by Kenny Fedorko).
The play opens in 1882, with something of a prologue. A spotlight is trained on a golden box. Ben picks it up, opens it, and a tinkling rendition of “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” plays. Over the course of the play, the tune morphs in ways that signal the transformation of the colonies into a nascent nation.
When William joins Ben in a barn, his father begins lecturing him as they prep a kite, silk body with a cloth tail and a metal key attached to the end. Thunder rumbles and lightning flashes beyond the barn doors, reminding all of Ben’s interest in electricity. Craving connection, William gee-whizzes his way through their experiment.
“I should like to fly a kite with you in any weather, I should like to spend more time with you in general,” William states with the kind of need that so often invites rejection. “For I should like more than anything to understand what it is that you do. These explorations that consume your days and your nights, your life, your trade, your dreams, your fears. I want to know everything about you, father.”
As the play proceeds, William’s obsequiousness lessens. His independence from his father and loyalty to the crown swells as the independence movement his father champions crests. King George III appoints him the royal governor of New Jersey. He’s also fathered his own — illegitimate — son: William Temple Franklin (Danté J. Finley).
Among the brightest stars of “Franklinland” is Markas Henry’s set with its brown wooden slats that suggest the rural and rough-hewn construction of the country. Brian Freeland’s sound design and Vance McKenzie’s lighting nicely gild the edges of what was never intended to be a straightforward period piece. Dane Torbenson imbues the show’s modest yet clever set changes with a contrasting, rather hip choreography.
Director Dee Covington and her creative team’s counterpoint flourishes underscore the not-factual aspects of Suh’s history play. Danté J. Finley, who is Black, portrays Ben’s grandson, which adds to the show’s telling insights on authenticity and blather, sons and fathers — founding and otherwise.
By the play’s end in the year 1785, the show’s variations on “America” — itself a cheeky sampling of the British national anthem — call to mind the reverb riffs that Jimi Hendrix famously applied to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In other words, the tune and its titular country are not without dissonance.
If you go
“Franklinland.” Written by Lloyd Suh. Directed by Dee Covington. Featuring Erik Sandvold, Kenny Fedorko and Danté J. Finley and Ron McQueen. Through Dec. 10 at Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma St. curioustheatre.org
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