Unmistakable topicality and human interest infuses “From Wharf Rats to Lord of the Docks” and “To Begin the World Over Again,” now playing in rep at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood. Writer-performer Ian Ruskin’s solo shows about, respectively, labor-union pioneer Harry Bridges and American Revolution visionary Thomas Paine have their academic aspects, but both are undeniably apropos for the corporatist-beleaguered present.
“Wharf Rats,” the older of the pieces, has been performed countless times, filmed by Haskell Wexler and broadcast by PBS repeatedly since 2009. In a fairly fleet conversational monologue, Ruskin introduces himself as Australian émigré Alfred Renton Bridges.
Moving around the bare-bones setting with loping ease, Ruskin recounts how Bridges took his name,his identification with Jack London, family and marital anecdotes, and Bridges’ long struggle to become a citizen and deal with repeated imprisonment while railing against capitalist hegemony. The Albion Hall group and the Big Strike of 1934 are here, as is the plainspoken point of view: “Foreign policy is too damned important to be left to the striped-pants set in Washington, D.C.”
“To Begin the World,” subtitled “The Life of Thomas Paine,” is equally cogent. In full 18th century regalia, Ruskin direct-addresses his way through an even broader spectrum of events, including the French Revolution, which by necessity requires a faintly impacted biographical overview. But the essence of Paine emerges, peppered with quotes from “Common Sense” and other immortal writings from this most radical of pre-Revolutionary colonists: “One must always speak the truth as one sees it, no matter the consequences.”
Certainly Ruskin, whose versatility, innate affability and easy delivery lands directly between middle-period Geoffrey Rush and the late Roger Livesey, conveys the truth as he sees it, holding focus during the voice-over contributions of Elliott Gould and Ed Asner, maintaining intrigue even when things become a historical dissertation.
From a dramatic standpoint, that is something of a liability. Recounting conflicts and events isn’t theatrically quite the same as representing them. Nonetheless both pieces, which reopen at the Electric Lodge after this limited run, are considerable and will appeal to History Channel addicts, political wonks, educators and their students, for starters.
“From Wharf Rats to Lord of the Docks” and “To Begin the World Over Again,” Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. “Wharf Rats,” 8 p.m Thursdays and Saturdays, “To Begin,” 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 2. Reopens June 20, Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave, Venice. $20. (800) 838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com/profile/63869. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.