Meeting of Minds #24 (Part 2 – Cromwell, O’Connell, Catherine the Great)

Sunday night we went down to the Steve Allen Theatre for the penultimate “Meeting of Minds” at that location. As a reminder, for those unfamilar with Meeting of Minds, it was an innovative PBS program developed by Steve Allen that brought together four (three in the last season) historical figures for a round-table discussion on a variety of topics. Extensively researched, it is both entertaining and educational. These programs were only available for a short time on videotape, and have never been released on DVD. Late in 2009, the good folks at Working Stage productions—in particular, Dan Lauria, Bob Ladendorf and Diana Ljungaeus brought back Meeting of Minds as a staged reading. Their goal is to not only produce these programs in Hollywood, but to perform at colleges, high schools, universitites and other educational or cultural venues, with name actors. With respect to the Hollywood production, they have been on a regular schedule of the third Sunday every month at 7pm at the Steve Allen Theatre. Alas, they are losing that location after the August show; more on that later (as well as a separate post I plan to make to los_angeles)

Last night’s episode was #24 (the last episode aired on PBS), and featured:

  • Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) [Ian Buchanan]. English soldier and political leader. Overthrew the Stuart Monarcy, and reigned as the Lord Protector of England.
  • Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) [James Handy]. Irish political leader, campaigned for the Catholic Emancipation. Known as “The Liberator”.
  • Catherine the Great (1729-1796) [Penny Peyser]. Empress of Russia for over 30 years, responsible for the modernization and westernization of Russia.
  • Steve Allen (1921-2000) [Jack Maxwell]. Writer of more than 50 books, composer of more than 8,500 songs, TV host (invented The Tonight Show as well as Meeting of Minds), actor, comedian, author, rationalist.

As with Episode #23 back in February 2010, this was an excellent actor mix — one of the strongest. This demonstrates the quality of these particular actors, as well as the work of the director, Frank Megna. This particular episode focused heavily on the conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics over Ireland, including the punative laws imposed on the Irish by England. In other words, Cromwell and O’Connell were going for each other’s throats most of the time.

As O’Connell, Handy was typically Irish: arrogant at times, playful, proud of his heritage. He reflecting the impact of the American Revolutionaries and freethinkers, emphasizing the importance of religious freedom, while acknowledging that the church in Rome was (until relatively recently) opposed to religious freedom. He emphasized how his approach was non-violent opposition (to which Steve Allen noted the potential comparison to Ghandi). As Cromwell, Buchanan was the opposite: the stern Puritan who felt he was in the right because God directed him to do what he did. As opposed to episode #23, which explored his views on the monarchy, this episode focused more on religious tolerance. It appeared that the religious tolerance was selective: he was tolerant to the Jews, but not to the Catholics in Ireland (tolerance for Catholics appearing to be a big problem since Henry VIII). Lastly, Penny Peyser was an interesting counterpoint: she gave a spirited performance as Catherine—playful, lusty, knowledgable. This episode deemphasized the sexual escapades and focused on her relationship with Potempkin; she was shocked to learn that the villiages and improvement that Potempkin showed her were shams. She felt Cromwell as in the wrong for not revelling in his power—he should have grabbed the monarchy when it was offered to him. It was also noted that O’Connell was offered the monarchy in Belgium.

In thinking about this episode this morning, I began musing about new episodes and who might be in them. The combination that this episode triggered in my mind was: Theodor Hertzl (1860-1904), Queen Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504), King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547), and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Herzl and Isabella should have interesting discussions about the Jews, Isabella and Henry should have interesting discussions about Catholicism (although they are perhaps too contemporary, and there might be a better church thinker), and Franklin would be an interesting addition to the mix due to his freethinking and more deist attitudes towards religion.

“Meeting of Minds” has been produced monthly by Bob Ladendorf and Diana Ljungaeus for Opening Minds Productions, every third Sunday of every month at 7:00pm through August at the Steve Allen Theatre in Hollywood. The specifics of the August episode (Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 7pm) have not been announced. Alas, Opening Minds loses the use of the Steve Allen Theatre after August and is currently scouting for a new location. If you are aware of a suitable location, please let me know in the comments and I’ll pass it on. The parameters are: (1) thrust stage or theatre in the round; (2) seating for at least 100; (3) ability to serve alcohol (wine); (4) availability the third Sunday of the month; and (5) affordable rental fees. The only possibility we could come up with was The Onion in North Hills.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next weekend brings Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on July 24, and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Mark Taper Forum on July 25. August starts with “Young Frankenstein” at the Pantages on August 1. The next weekend brings [title of show] at the Celebration Theatre on August 6. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, and August 21 “Side Man” at REP East. Looking into September, there is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4, and “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 5-October 17, to be ticketed), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (9/17-10/16). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where. October will bring “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and possibly “The Glass Menagerie” at the Mark Taper Forum.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.