A man with a club is a lawmaker.
Charlie Bethel walks casually onto the stage, a metal coffee cup in hand, and gazes into the distance. He strolls past the shiny dog food bowl at center stage to a table covered with objects – some bottles of Sprite, a handkerchief, a bottle of brandy, a stack of papers, an antique-looking can of Alpo dog food. Bethel sits at the table, whittles a pencil sharp, then begins writing. Music is playing: John Denver’s “Alaska and Me,” then “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” a Civil War-era song popular well through the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s.
Thus begins the experience of Charlie Bethel’s adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, the one-man show Bethel is performing through January 29th at Baltimore Theatre Project. But this is not technically “in” the show; it’s a full ten minutes before curtain when Bethel saunters out, house lights and stage lights all still shining brightly. It’s a clever move. His presence onstage, doing the simple things one can imagine Jack London doing during his year in the Yukon territory at the height of the Gold Rush, establishes the frame that houses Bethel’s faithful retelling of London’s most famous work. But it also creates a sense of intimacy with the audience. You get used to him being there, watching him perform simple tasks typically done in private. It fosters a familiarity that lends this production a feeling less of a Formal Theatrical Event than a sense of sitting around the campfire listening to a great storyteller, the age-old tradition of oral history and folklore.
The Call of the Wild is the story of a dog named Buck. Buck’s early life is sweet; he has good food, ample attention, a cozy place to sleep, and plenty of idle time to chase rabbits or whatever dogs of privilege enjoy doing. Things take a bad turn for Buck, though, when he is kidnapped by an unscrupulous human and sold into slavery. He is sent to Alaska to work as a sled dog during the Klondike Gold Rush, a period of time when greed caused a lot of people to abandon whatever shreds of decency they may have possessed in favor of their quest for gold.
Life in Alaska is hard; the weather is brutal and the people are savage. Buck learns fast that “a man with a club is a lawmaker” and that obeying those laws is a matter of survival. This understanding later expands to “The Law of Club and Fang,” covering both human and canine justice. Buck is sold to some French Canadians and works with a pack of dogs pulling a mail-carrier dogsled. When the pack eventually grows too weary to continue, Buck is sold to a party of vicious, amateur gold-seekers who drive the dogs cruelly until, one-by-one, they start to succumb to the elements, exhaustion, or what might generously be termed “euthanasia.” Before these people’s avarice and hubris manage to kill Buck, he is saved by the love of his life – a kind owner who respects his needs and values his company. Still, all the while, Buck is increasingly drawn by the call of the wild – an invitation to the unfettered freedom of a feral life like that of his ancestors.
I’ve seen Bethel perform before. I reviewed his production of The Seven Poor Travellers when he was last in Baltimore and found his storytelling completely riveting, so I came into The Call of the Wild with some high expectations. Bethel not only met, but exceeded them. His mastery of modulation and cadence, varying the speed and tempo of his voice, was as engaging and musical as I remembered. His voicing of at least ten (I lost count) separate characters was never confusing. From the tough-but-fair French Canadian, Francois, to the spoiled American stampeder’s wife, Mercedes, the tone and accent of each person was distinct from the others, as was Bethel’s embodiment of them.
It was, in fact, Bethel’s physical acting that elevated this performance above even the excellence I’d been expecting. Bethel’s voice and style are mesmerizing. They make you suggestible, like the congregation of a tent-revival preacher. Once you’re under the spell of the story, gestures indicating bared teeth and snapping jaws, shivering cold, or a bristling mane bring vivid images to mind. With the squinting of an eye and a menacing sneer, Bethel isn’t Bethel anymore; he’s the merciless musher, Hal, driving hardworking dogs to their deaths. And, somehow, with widened, trusting eyes, an expectant smile, and a bit of a butt-wiggle, Bethel honest-to-goodness projects the unconditionally loving, excited, joyous image of a pup greeting his beloved master. The sparse sound effects used in the show from time to time – the crack of a whip, a dog’s yelp, a boat horn – are well-placed and ambient, but hardly necessary, such is Bethel’s ability to conjure a scene.
Before the days of television, and of video being available on devices that fit in your pocket, storytelling was a treasured art form.
Minstrels and troubadours, medieval storytellers who recited lyrical, heroic, epic poetry, were employed by kings to provide entertainment at court. A skilled bard could make a living and travel the world, trading stories for food, lodging and transport. Even today, people gladly host a friend who has returned from a journey to hear stories of their adventures; it’s where the expression “I could dine on this for days” comes from. But storytelling as the centerpiece – the main attraction for an evening’s entertainment – is something that’s hard to find.
We’re lucky in Baltimore that once each winter (at least for the past four years), we are visited by Charlie Bethel, a raconteur of such talent that in ye olde days, he’d be performing for kings. Don’t miss your chance to experience this for yourself.
Head to Baltimore Theatre Project and enjoy Bethel’s adaptation of The Call of the Wild. It’s an opportunity to see an ancient art form performed by one of the best practitioners around. And it’s a lot of fun.
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.
The Call of the Wild plays through Sunday, January 29, 2017, at Baltimore Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-8558, or purchase them online.
An Interview with Charlie Bethel on his One-Man Show ‘The Call of the Wild’ at Baltimore Theatre Project by Patricia Mitchell.