Val Kilmer transforms into Mark Twain
Over the course of two hours inside a small dressing room at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Val Kilmer ages 20 years.
His hair turns a crazy, curly white, a strong mustache sprouts on his upper lip, and deep bags appear under his eyes. Eventually the actor is nearly unrecognizable — instead, he’s Mark Twain and ready for the one-man show “Citizen Twain.”
“There’s a part of the makeup that starts to become the way I understand Mark Twain,” says Kilmer, sitting in the makeup chair. “He’s old in my story … old people are often frustrated because their movement becomes restricted.”
Kilmer later puts on a white suit and adopts a strong Southern accent. Sometimes he even sits in the audience before the show, drinking a glass of whiskey. Eventually he gets up and makes his way to the stage.
“Where am I? What year is this?” he asks.
Transformative character acting isn’t uncommon for Kilmer — he played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” Doc Holliday in “Tombstone,” and was Batman in the 1995 “Batman Forever.”
Though he’s spent the last 20 years predominantly in film, his acting career actually began onstage — at 17 he was accepted to Juilliard’s drama division.
But this time, Kilmer also wrote the play and directs it.
Ten years ago Kilmer decided to write a screenplay but, stuck without the financing, he developed “Citizen Twain.”
“Theater has less moving parts, and it’s much less expensive to make a play than a movie,” he says.
The play has at its center Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist — two disparate historical icons whose lives briefly intertwined when Twain criticized Eddy in the press.
“They’re unique, self-made Americans, who both represent aspects of the American character,” he says.
But in the play, Twain provides an apology to Eddy that he was never able to clearly express in real life; after all, Twain and Eddy never actually met. Eddy was a point of fascination for Twain; he even wrote a book called “Christian Science” that both flattered and criticized Eddy’s work.
“He did bully her, and he was careless,” says Kilmer. “She had legitimate success, and he basically practiced some pretty shoddy journalism by introducing ideas that were conveniences to him, like the accusation that she was a plagiarist.”
Eddy is mentioned frequently in the play but is only a phantom character used to bring out a less-seen side of Twain.
“There are parts of his nature that perfectly represent the masculine side of our consciousness,” Kilmer says, but the incorporation of Eddy brings out a feminine side, “a recognition of a different way of being strong, a feminine strength. Eddy represents that sensitivity.”
Twain is only human, and this, Kilmer admits, is suggested in the title — a play on the 1941 classic film “Citizen Kane,” starring Orson Welles.
“Kane really saw himself as an everyman, and being a ‘citizen’ is a proper way to identify Twain: a man of the people, if ever there was one,” says Kilmer.
The play is filled with modern influences and “Twainisms” — such as “twainwreck” or “in Twain we trust,” which adorns the playbill.
“I’m trying to be Twain-like and not be didactic and hit you over the head with the point of the story but let it sneak up on you,” he says.
Also, Kilmer says, Mark Twain could be considered one of the earliest stand-up comedians.
Since 2010, Kilmer has been shopping the play around in formats and locations, including an early staged reading of Twain quotes at the Mary Baker Eddy museum in Boston, a show on North Dakota Indian land, and a small run at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Right now, it’s still in “workshop mode,” but Kilmer is ready to take it bigger — Broadway is his dream.
“There are about 300, A-list Broadway directors, and maybe 10 are available, and two or three will hopefully fly out to see the show,” says Kilmer. It’s a gamble, especially considering that Hal Holbrook has a long-standing one-man show called “Mark Twain Tonight!” that premiered in 1954 and has had many Broadway runs, most recently in 2006.
It prompts the question: Are the concepts too similar?
“Mine is more of a character study. Hal’s, I believe, is 100% Twain quotes. I take liberties,” says Kilmer, who calls Holbrook’s work extraordinary.
A perk of the play’s workshop status is that at the end, audiences get to watch makeup artist April Metcalf take Kilmer’s makeup off as he answers their questions about the play.
For the first few, the accent remains, leaving you unsure who’s talking, but as the makeup is removed — much quicker than it’s applied — and his skin is rubbed clean, Kilmer himself resurfaces.
“I don’t have to talk like him anymore, do I?” he says after a recent performance at the Kirk Douglas venue in Culver City.
And Kilmer queries the audience too. “Do you think it’s too long?” he said, which was met with a collective “no.” The show runs about 90 minutes with no intermission.
There is one question Kilmer is surprised audiences don’t ask more frequently. During the play, Twain asks, “What’s the most important thing in the world?” but never comes back with an answer.
“I wrote that line in the play, so I would try to find for myself,” Kilmer says in the dressing room. “When you’re younger, you think that it must be one thing, but it changes.”
One thing he’s sure of: “What’s a dream come true,” Kilmer says of his current undertaking, “is a chance to be new again. Reminding the community that what I do is character acting.”
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: Ends Sunday. Will play Aug. 21-24 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Tickets: $30 to $60
Contact: (213) 628-2772 and https://www.centertheatregroup.org
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