Review: The Earliest Known Photo of Men Drinking Beer
I didn't know what to expect from The Earliest Known Photo of Men Drinking Beer. There wasn't much information available on this Drinking & Writing Production, and to be honest, I was worried that the single female actor would be nothing more than a token on stage, as happens in many plays with similar casts. Luckily, I was wrong.
The show begins with characters creating the photo on which this show is based, and they're everything you'd expect for circa 1844. You meet James Ballantine, the writer (played by writer and director Sean Benjamin); the painter, David Octavius Hill (played by Steve Mosqueda, whose facial expressions alone won a lot of laughs); the Victorian Shakespearean actress Isabella Glyn (played by powerhouse actor Carolyn Shoemaker-Benjamin); and the photographer, Robert Adamson (played by a wonderful Kevin Alves). And it's all very serious work, taking this photograph. Until they break character, and that's when this show really begins to shine.
Shoemaker-Benjamin is incredible. This woman sings, easily shifts between multiple characters and is the energy propelling this show forward. Not to mention, she's pregnant. In contrast (and not pregnant) is Kevin Alves, who is the only one who remains in character. As Robert Adamson, he fights to wrangle the cast into their proper characters and time periods in order to take his famous photograph. The process of his unraveling marks the trajectory of this original play from beginning to end.
This conflict between the past, present, and future leads to a discussion on art and immortality. The actress is made immortal through her reviews, the writer by his words, the painter and photographer for their images. Yet, no one in the audience knew these characters, save for their current experience of them, as if to say that, even in death, gaining recognition is a struggle.
This production plays to its highest intelligence. It's risky, but clever and honest. The performances alone are worth admission, and Sean Benjamin's production reminds us why our storefront theatres are so well respected. So, don't take yourself so seriously, have a beer, and enjoy this show while it's around.