Making his mark as Twain

Although Mark Twain's literary voice has implanted itself in the American consciousness, there's no known recording of him speaking. Nevertheless, the "Huckleberry Finn" author came on the phone Monday afternoon to rave about his upcoming gig in Laguna Beach.

"Oh, I'm lookin' fah-ward to the waters and enjoying the sunshine and the clean beaches," Twain said, his slow Missouri drawl feeling its way around each syllable. "I noticed when I was down theah yesterday that you're not allowed to take any objects from the beach. And it seems like it's a very healthful community. They say that livin' in California adds 10 years to your life. Isn't that wonderful? I think I'll spend them in New Yorrrrrrk."

How close it was to the real man, we may never know, but Val Kilmer, whose "Citizen Twain" will stop by the Laguna Playhouse next week, thinks he has a good idea. So at the end of a half-hour interview, when challenged to answer a question in character ("How do you feel about coming to Laguna Beach for the first time, Mr. Twain?"), Kilmer was happy to oblige.

Not that evoking Twain poses much of a challenge by now. In the past few years, Kilmer has brought his one-man show to the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the Pasadena Playhouse and elsewhere, and he's learned the character well enough to take detours from the script. At Laguna, he plans to pull out audience members for impromptu interviews and mingle in the lobby before the show.

"He's just so full of love, Mark Twain," Kilmer said in his real voice, which, at least Monday, sounded like a slow, contemplative drawl of its own. "And so original."

"Citizen Twain," which centers on Twain's intellectual rivalry with Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, was a late addition to the playhouse's fall schedule. Less than four months ago, Kilmer presented the play in workshop form at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, talking to the audience as he had his makeup removed and soliciting their thoughts on the play.

Even now, Kilmer considers "Citizen Twain" technically a work in progress — and it's only part of a long journey he's taken with the subject. A decade ago, he wrote a screenplay about Twain and Eddy, which has yet to be produced. In the meantime, he crafted the stage show to further understand the character from an actor's perspective.

When Kilmer played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's biopic "The Doors," he had the luxury of playing a historical figure who has been well documented on film and record. With Twain, he had to make do with limited resources: The only known footage of Twain is a brief silent montage, made by Thomas Edison in 1909, that shows the author walking the grounds of his home and having tea with his family.

Jacques Lamarre, director of communications and special projects for the Mark Twain House & Museum in Connecticut, said Edison apparently captured Twain's voice on wax cylinders, but none of the recordings is known to exist. As a result, any performance as Twain ultimately comes down to the actor's imagination.

In that regard, the most famous interpretation may be Hal Holbrook's one-man show "Mark Twain Tonight!", which he debuted in the 1950s and continues to perform to this day. Lamarre, who helped Kilmer research the subject, surmises that the "Citizen Twain" version may be more of a 21st-century stylization.

"I think that Val really has to kind of create his own Twain character, because a lot of the folks that go out and portray Mark Twain onstage are essentially imitating Hal Holbrook," he said. "So there's no denying that someone of Val's stature stepping out onstage is going to be compared to Hal Holbrook. And there's no need for him to go out there and do the same thing, because Hal Holbrook is still doing it.

"I think Val's got sort of a wonderfully loopy sensibility that is kind of his own, and so I'm not opposed to seeing someone kind of reinterpret Twain in a different way."

For that matter, Twain may have reinterpreted himself many times over — at least according to Kilmer, who views him as a prototype of the modern stand-up comedian.

"I studied the Missouri dialect forever, and then I realized that Mark Twain made up his dialect," the actor said. "The reason I know that is because it's a series of logical deductions. He made up everything about himself, so he had a brilliant ear for dialect."

In other words, to borrow a line from the first page of "Huckleberry Finn," the show at the Laguna Playhouse may be mostly the truth — with some stretchers.

If You Go

What: "Citizen Twain"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21 and 22, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 23 and 24

Cost: $65

Information: (949) 497-2787 or

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World