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Mencken -- pungent wit and all: a one-man show

The rumpled but somehow still jaunty figure on stage is clearly a man of our times. Puffing on his cigar, he grins wickedly and observes that ``no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.'' The words are pointed and pungent, but the tone is anything but malicious; the man appears to be in high good humor as he skewers anything that moves on the American scene. Nothing makes him chortle more fondly than the subject of politics. ``On only one question can I discover any doubt,'' he remarks with equanimity, ``and that is on the question of whether those who believe in their own hocus-pocus are to be placed higher in entertainment value than those who are too smart. But perhaps the question answers itself, because very few of the latter in the long run are able to resist their own buncombe.''

The delicious phrases and well-crafted insults belong to H. L. Mencken, as ably personified by Jack Wellington Cantwell. The one-actor, one-character format has become familiar in recent years. Everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Edgar Allan Poe to Emily Dickinson has been employed as a touring vehicle by one performer or another. But the Mencken/Cantwell combination is as fruitful as any since Hal Holbrook pioneered the form with ``Mark Twain Tonight!''

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Like Twain, Mencken -- author, editor, linguist, and the man who thrust ``boob,'' ``buncombe,'' and ``Bible belt'' into the American lexicon -- is a commentator whose wit still gleams and whose sallies, with the change of a few names, might have been prompted by last week's events. Cantwell doesn't so much ``act'' Mencken as make himself at home in the Sage of Baltimore's contentious but commodious spirit.

Mencken isn't lonely in his current ramblings, as he has been joined on the road by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and a great many more ghosts with something pertinent to say. On the corporeal level, Cantwell has joined forces with fellow actor Allen Nause for a daring, open-ended national tour of three infinitely adaptable ``evenings'' of theater. Along with ``An Evening with H. L. Mencken,'' the pair offers two collages of drama and poetry -- ``Our Daily Bread'' (about the world of work) and ``The Seven Ages'' -- to audiences wherever they may find them. At the moment, the audiences are in Alaska.

Cantwell and Nause are both veteran, well-traveled actors. Until recently they worked together at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival. Nause's r'esum'e, in particular, features strong credits up and down the West Coast, from the Berkeley Rep to the major theaters of Seattle. They are, in short, established, employable performers in mid-career.

Barnstorming of this sort is generally the province of the young and hungry or the very well known. Those willing to subject themselves to the rigors of the road tend to be media personalities trading on national reputations, or outsiders trying to break into the profession. Nause and Cantwell, who call themselves the National Theatre Express, are most unusual, involuntarily abandoning one of the country's best repertory companies for a car, a succession of motels, and the chance to play in classrooms, community halls, private clubs, and what-have-you.

Their motives are a combination of confidence in the growing audience for theater in what Variety likes to call ``the hinterlands,'' an adventurous entrepreneurial spirit, and a dislike of the actor's traditional dependence on the casting director. ``We're both very fortunate that we've worked the last 10 or 15 years straight,'' says Nause, ``but there's always that thing hanging over your head. You have to depend on someone else.'' Cantwell chimes in, ``We're not on the block when we're doing our own show.''

The current tour was born of their experience last year, when the Shakespearean Festival's development office sent them off on an 8,600-mile, six-week jaunt to entertain potential donors during the winter off-season. ``We worked in every conceivable kind of space, for every conceivable kind of audience, and we found out we liked it,'' Cantwell recalls. ``We found that we not only liked doing the theater, we found we liked doing the travel together -- the car, the restaurants, the whole bit. Usually when people come back from touring, they want to kill each other. We came back wanting to do it again.''

This is where the entrepreneurial streak emerged. Tours to schools and other cultural venues have been done, but the new proprietors of the National Theatre Express had wider horizons in mind. Cantwell is no unworldly artiste. He was once a marine and spent 10 years as marketing director for an insurance company before hearing the call to theater relatively late in life. He relishes the game of selling himself, and between them, he and Nause have done a creative job of marketing their evanescent product. They have already booked themselves for performances everywhere from women's clubs and Friends of the Library meetings to universities and auto dealerships. They've persuaded the Sheraton hotel chain to sponsor a portion of their tour. They're negotiating with two major oil companies about the possibility of having touring theater go to captive audiences on oil rigs. They're even talking to the Department of Defense.

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Nause and Cantwell are as well suited as any pair to play a range of human beings vertically from cradle to grave (as in ``The Seven Ages'') or horizontally across class and occupational lines (``Our Daily Bread''). Cantwell, who looks younger than his years, is the kind of actor who excels at playing age. Nause has an air of open-faced amiability and is good at playing nice guys, yet his heavy features twist themselves quite convincingly into masks of hatred or loathing, as witness his major roles last year at the festival -- the spitting, snarling Thersites in ``Troilus and Cressida'' and the vengeful Vindice, title role in ``The Revenger's Tragedy.''

None of the three shows that Cantwell and Nause are literally carrying around in a suitcase is ``set'' -- the script is highly flexible. Indeed, everything is flexible. The actors take the stage in street clothes, changing character, nationality, age, and even gender with a gesture and a shift in voice. The props are Mencken's cigar and Nause's guitar.

Even the dubiously named ``An Evening with H. L. Mencken'' (which is likely to take place in the afternoon) is a fluid affair. Cantwell has four hours of Menckeniana he can summon to memory, which he assembles to the desired specifications of length or occasion. (And Mencken has something to say apropos of any human folly, usually several things. ``He says contradictory things,'' says Cantwell. ``It depends on what kind of fun he was having at the time.'')

The National Theatre Express is currently at the Broadway Performance Hall, Seattle, Wash., and has a final appearance there Jan. 5 at 8 p.m. The show will then appear Jan. 8 (8 p.m.) at the University of Alaska Performing Arts Center, Anchorage, Alaska; Jan. 9 (7:30 p.m.) at the Fairbanks Drama Association Theatre, Fairbanks, Alaska; Jan. 14 (7:30 p.m.) at Sheldon Jackson College, Sitka, Alaska; Jan. 16 (8 p.m.) at the Perseverance Theatre, Juneau, Alaska. Jan. 19 (8 p.m.) at the Central Peninsula Concert Association, Kenai, Alaska. Jan. 25 and 26 (8 p.m.) at the Old Church, Portland, Ore.; and Feb. 1 (8 p.m.) at Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore.

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