by Gail M. Burns
Russell Colvin either was, or was not, murdered by his brothers-in-law, Stephen and Jesse Boorn, in East Manchester, Vermont, in 1812. If he wasn’t murdered then, he either did, or did not, return to town in 1819 alive and well. The case, in which the Boorn brothers were accused of his murder and sentenced to hang, was well documented at the time, and has continued to garner attention on and off in the 200+ years since. Oliver Wadsworth has not only resurrected several fascinating aspects of this story, but presents them in the style of the popular itinerate solo performers of that day in his 70 minute one-man show, The Tarnation of Russell Colvin.
After a four performance run kicking off the Dorset Theatre Festival’s 40th anniversary season, Wadsworth is taking the show on the road throughout rural Vermont in the coming week. He will be traveling with the beautiful restored painted Charles Henry theatre curtain on loan from Main Street Arts in Saxtons River, Vermont, which is the other “star” of the show. Wadsworth had to rent a school bus to transport the Henry drop from Saxtons River to Dorset, since the long drop could be rolled but not folded.
Nineteenth century American theatre, the real birth of that genre since in colonial days theatre was either frivolous in comparison to the need to survive, and/or banned on religious tenants, was full of what we now might consider racial and ethnic stereotypes. While this is definitely not “politically correct” it was a key ingredient in creating the “melting pot” of late 19th and early 20th century America. Rather than being offended by the caricatures, the theatre became a place where everyone – German, Irish, Dutch, Scandinavian – could come and laugh together about their shared immigrant experience. (While “blackface” minstrel shows were also very popular, the non-white population neither participated in nor enjoyed the entertainment.)
Wadsworth did considerable research into the early 19th century performers, specifically Charles Matthews and George “Yankee” Hill who traveled the country with their one-man shows. Some of their popular characters, such as the “Dutch” (we would say German) Mrs. Mangel-wurzel, the outrageously French M. Capot, and even the broad rural twang of title character himself.
It was well documented that Russell Colvin was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Here Wadsworth creates a character recognizably on what we now call the Autism Spectrum, which is a perfectly plausible explanation for a man who was able to maintain his family farm – until it was taken from him by Town Fathers who decided he was incompetent – and may or may not have survived a near-fatal beating then reinvented himself, twice.
The Colvin story is a complex one, spanning nearly a decade and at least three states, and Wadsworth does his level best to make all the characters and circumstances jibe, but unless you are very, very familiar with the story, you may become confused. I refer you to my preview article, which goes into greater historical depth, and also supplies a few images and maps that may be of assistance keeping everything straight.
The aspect of the story Wadsworth tells that I cannot corroborate historically, although I bow to the actor’s deeper research into the facts, is the character of Colvin’s son, Rufus; and the story of the actor who may, or may not, have been hired to portray Colvin in 1819, when he “rose from the dead” and reappeared in Manchester. Colvin did have a son named Rufus, who was his favorite, and who he used to carry about on his shoulder before his disappearance in 1812. And the man who was brought from New Jersey to Vermont in 1819 may, or may not, have been a “counterfeit.” Wadsworth centers his story on these two characters and on the relationship between Rufus and his father (who may or may not be the person he unites with in 1819.)
Wadsworth makes young Rufus and the mentally challenged Russell appealing underdogs, although this is actually a story where good triumphs. There are no clean “villains” – the Boorn brothers are exonerated of killing Colvin – and most everyone has an interesting and sensible point of view and motive for their actions. It is good fun watching Wadsworth morph from one character to another, often simply by changing his voice and accent, rather than rapidly slapping costume pieces on and off.
The Tarnation of Russell Colvin is a fascinating look back at post-Revolutionary New England, its people and its entertainments. This is not just who we were, it is who we still are as there are descendants of the people involved in this story still living in the Manchester/Dorset area. This is a story of how our ancestors sought for social justice, and, to a large measure, were successful in achieving it. And it’s a darn good mystery too!
The Tarnation of Russell Colvin will be performed June 8 & 10 at 7:30 pm and June 9 at 10 am & 7:30 pm at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset, VT. Seven o’clock performances are also scheduled for Jamaica VT on June 22, Wardsboro VT on June 24, and South Londonderry VT on June 30. Visit Oliver Wadsworth’s Web site for details and tickets.
Written & performed by Oliver Wadsworth; directed by Kirk Jackson; costumes by Richard MacPike; set by Michael Rancourt. Special thanks Main Street Arts; Saxtons River, VT; and the Town Hall of Wardsboro, VT, for the loan of the theatre curtain.