Val Kilmer opens his one-man show “Citizen Twain” at the Pasadena Playhouse on August 21 and the tickets are selling fast. Kilmer’s just finished a highly successful run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, but his Mark Twain journey actually started in 2002.
Kilmer rose to fame opposite Tom Cruise in the 1986 “Top Gun.” In 1991, he played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic “The Doors.” He was the 1993 caped crusader in Joel Schumacher’s 193 “Batman Forever,” and while he considers Michael Keaton’s Batman “pretty darn fabulous” he loves his Batmobile the best. Kilmer then took on the role of “The Saint” in the eponymous movie.
Kilmer as Simon Templar disguised himself as 12 other characters. That should clue you in. Kilmer is more than just a pretty face that got lucky in the movies. Kilmer was the youngest person to be accepted into Juilliard School’s drama division at the time when he was 17. The promise that Juilliard saw then, you can see now when you witness Kilmer submerge himself into the role of Mark Twain. Kilmer is a character actor and his Twain is a bit of a rascal.
Mark Twain is the nom de plume for Samuel Clemens who created such characters as Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn. His books still cause some controversy, but besides those characters who wrote in a manner that attempted to capture American dialects with humor and social commentary.
At the Kirk Douglas, Kilmer as Twain came into the audience, shaking hands, stopping to take photos with fans and giving high fives. But the Pasadena Playhouse is a much larger venue. During a recent phone interview, Kilmer said, “I’m really excited about Pasadena. The size of the theater with Pasadena makes it a bigger show and we’ve got a fancier beginning. The Kirk Douglas is beautiful and every seat is a great seat. It’s very intimate and a fun way to start by literally walking through and meeting half of the audience or at least 100 people out of 300. I imagine I could do some version of that in the Pasadena Playhouse. We have a couple of tricks up our sleeves. I have an idea of how ‘Twain’ begins.”
Like most Americans, Kilmer has been aware of Mark Twain since he can remember. His first memory of Mark Twain was reading his stories in grade school although, he confessed, his first exposure might be in relationship to Disney and Disneyland. Like many Californians, Disneyland and Walt Disney Productions weekly TV series which began in 1954 and continue to the present are a part of our childhoods. Disneyland’s Frontierland has Tom Sawyer’s Island where kids can pretend they are free from parental influences.
Kilmer professes that he’s partial to Huckleberry Finn over Tom Sawyer. “Huck Finn is freer and purer. Tom’s involved with the morality that’s from the town and the culture. Huck is naturally freer and not involved in the restrictions of the morality of the culture of the time. He doesn’t judge people. To him, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.”
Much later in life, Kilmer became interested in the relationship between Mary Baker Eddy and Twain. Eddy was the founder of the Christian Science and the publisher of the Christian Science Monitor. Although Kilmer attended the Christian Science educational facility of Berkeley Hall School until he entered Chatsworth High School, he stated, “I didn’t know of their connection until 14-15 years ago. I started writing 13 years ago and I’ve been trying to get a movie made for three years.”
His one-man show, “Citizen Twain,” is a character study and a means of raising funds for that movie. This isn’t Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain. Holbrook first performed his solo show, “Mark Twain Tonight!” in 1954–before the 53-year-old Kilmer was born. Holbrook won an Emmy for a TV broadcast in 1967 and a Tony in 1966. “Mark Twain Tonight” has been on Broadway three times. At 88, Holbrook is older than Twain who died at 74.
“Hal is presenting one state of mind of Mark Twain. He (Twain) is on stage lecturing as if it was round the turn of the century. This is a very particular way of presenting his mood. He knows he’s in public. He’s not going to mention something too private or too personal.”
Kilmer’s character study of Twain is much different. “Twain is disoriented and confused and dead. I touch on his spiritual search, his shortcomings–the fact that he’s vain, the fact that’s he’s petty. He had serious challenges with addictions. These are all things that I haven’t seen Hal touch on.”
If you think that makes Kilmer’s “Citizen Twain” serious, don’t worry. Kilmer’s Twain is American’s first standup comedian, telling jokes on stage even in his conversations with God. He comments on the current state of affairs as well. Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean he’s stopped taking interest in worldly affairs.
Kilmer has always had an admiration for stand up comedians. “I really respect comedians. I grew up loving Richard Pryor and Steven Martin, particularly. I learned of the guys they really loved like Lenny Bruce and Redd Foxx who were more radical and committed to social meaning because of their backgrounds. I liked the way Lenny Bruce talked about racial issues, language and drugs. Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor were in the same category–so disarmingly funny. They were funny first. We were just lucky growing up in one of the biggest cities in the world. I got to see Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, Jimmy Hendrix and The Doors when I was too young to take it all in. I got to see Steve Martin at the Troubadour and paid only $3.50. We were underage. Me and my brother were always the youngest people there. I was unhappy (at the time) so comedy was the solution.”
Yet although Kilmer’s Twain elicits plenty of laughs from the audience during this 90-minute one-man show, Kilmer doesn’t consider himself a funny man. “I can’t even tell a joke, so I don’t usually try. I really love people who do.”
You’ll have to buy tickets quick because they are selling fast. Kilmer ends his show with a relaxed audience talk back while his make up and wig are being removed. In all, he sums up, “It’s fun to play characters who improve your ability to get a date. Put on the Betty White fright wig and chicks flock.”
“Citizen Twain” opens on August 21 and continues until August 30 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. Dark on Sunday and Monday. 8 p.m. One Saturday 4 p.m. matinee. $40-$100. For more information, call (626) 356-7529 or visit http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org