The Donners are Deaded: Discussion of a Work in Progress

Cara Marsh Sheffler and Luke Cissell in "Guide" and "Infinite Progress."

How does one reconstruct and learn from a man who died over a hundred years before one was born?

In “Guide” and “(The Myth Of) Infinite Progress,” an intriguing little double-bill-in-development at Williamsburg’s The Brick theater, Cara Marsh Sheffler and Luke Cissell have pieced together a series of verbal and aural interpretations of the life of Lansford Warren Hastings, Esq. Who was Mr. Hastings, you ask? Only the man who sold the Donner party the shortcut that landed them in the mountains during the worst winter in California History, in 1846. Fans of the macabre will know how that worked out. For the rest of you, hie thee to Wikipedia!

How did Hastings influence the Donner party and their travel route? He was a raconteur and writer, in a style that, as portrayed, suggests Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) – with less of a conscience. He traveled West – and later, to Brazil – and wrote guide books to each with a mind to inspire people to emigrate westward. He also sent the Donner party a letter, adjusting his original recommended route to include the shortcut they took…to their doom.

The themes that start to emerge over the course of this monologue resonate deeply in the American consciousness. Americans are pioneers, Hastings tells us, and part of being a pioneer is going where no-one else has gone – and getting there first. Speed is a theme here, too. And although it was less than explicit in the portion of the monologue Sheffler shared with her audience, one also gets the sense of an entrepreneur trying to justify – and elevate – his own work in light of the tragedy that struck the party later in its journey. Questions of racial and socio-economic inequality  seems not to bother our humble narrator.

Fiddling champ Luke Cissell provides his companion piece, Infinite Progress, woven into the fabric of Sheffler’s monologue. Providing both compliment and dissonance to the piece – depending on the tone of his tune and the content of Sheffler’s script – the addition of the violin and the convivial atmosphere fostered by the performers and venue gave the performance the same sense of warmth that one might expect to encounter around a camp fire, listening to folk stories, legends, and history.

Sheffler mentioned that there is much more to Hastings’ tale than she related during her performance of Guide, and there is wealth of drama in the tale of the fast-talking salesman who led an entire party of pioneers to their doom. The depth of material made available in this story is staggering, and one gets the sense that, like a sculptor, Sheffler’s biggest task in the time ahead will be achieving the liberation of a completed, polished work as slick as her protagonist’s sales pitches from the huge block of information already available to her.

I, for one, am interested to see where she and Cissell go with their concept.

For more on theater with a taste for flesh, check out my review of  “The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller” at the ArcLight theater.

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