Oliver Wadsworth brings one-man play to Dorset Theatre Festival

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DORSET, Vt. — Say the name "Russell Colvin" around a paranormal investigator and you'll get ears-a-perkin'.

But say it somewhere around Dorset Playhouse, and the reaction will be one of smiles, nodding heads — and anticipation

That's because award-winning actor Oliver Wadsworth is bringing his own version of the famously supernatural tale from another time and realm to Dorset Theatre Festival's stage in a special presentation of his one-man play, "The Tarnation of Russell Colvin."

Written by and starring Wadsworth in a multitude of roles, the show is meant as an early kick-off to the festival's 40th anniversary season. It's directed by stage veteran Kirk Jackson, who is also a theater professor at Bennington College.

DTF executive and artistic director Dina Janis said the play is a perfect springboard for her company's landmark season, as it addresses local history as well as greater human themes.

"It's a celebration of an old Manchester ghost story and that felt really special to us, an homage to our community and its history," Janis said. "It also looks at how unkindly we can sometimes treat folks who we find different from ourselves. Finally, Ollie! He's an award-winning actor who is worth the drive from just about anywhere."

The play is based on the central figure of Russell Colvin, whose 1819 murder in Manchester Village spurred debate far and wide between the presence of a ghost, and an imposter.

According to historical accounts and local legend, Colvin, who was married to the expecting Sally Boorn, vanished without a trace. Sally's brothers, Jesse and Stephen Boorn, were suspected of foul play. In 1825, the ghost of Colvin reportedly appeared to Sally's Uncle Amos, claiming the two brothers killed him. This led Amos to dig up some of Russell's artifacts in the Boorn cellar — after having been led there by Colvin's ghost.

The two brothers were tried and convicted of Russell Colvin's murder, and Stephen was sentenced to hang. Russell miraculously showed up and exonerated the brothers of his killing. But then, almost immediately, he vanished again.

Wadsworth said he had been working on the play for some time before mentioning it to Janis several years back.

Janis was thrilled and sensed its potential as a springboard for DTF's 40th season.

At a November 2015 reading at the Northshire Bookstore, Wadsworth drew such raucous audience response that Janis and director Kirk Jackson joined him in applying for and securing grants to fund the project and bring it to the stage.

The group secured underwriting by the Vermont Community Foundation and The Samara Fund, with support from Bennington College.

Wadsworth is no stranger to one-actor plays, in which he said he loves acting. His credits include "Fully Committed" at the Capital Repertory, which won Metroland Best Performance in 2002, and "The Santaland Diaries" at Actors Theatre of Louisville and White Heron Theater, Nantucket.

"In `Tarnation,' there is a range of characters [who are] young, old, high, low, male, female," Wadsworth said. "I have to eat my Wheaties and be up on my electrolytes in order to inhabit the populace of Manchester Village, circa 1819."

While Wadsworth is more than capable of bringing down the house with laughter, his one-man show also examines visceral human refrains, such as the treatment of LGBTQ persons and also those dealing with intellectual impairment.

As such, Jackson noted, "Tarnation" is also a tale of empathy.

"One of the joys of theater is that one understands truth through its representation," Jackson said. "[It] engage[s] the audience's imagination as participants in bringing the story to life."

That's what is rewarding, Jackson continued, about working with Wadsworth on this piece.

"He is so capable, technically skillful, and emotional available that he's able to entertain an audience while they learn the vocabulary of how the story is told, and very soon they are not only enjoying his ability to inhabit a dozen or more characters, but really enjoying their [own] ability to engage and relate to those characters, as if it was a cast of a dozen actors," he said.

Janis said the run is limited to four shows, and interested audience members should act quickly to secure a ticket, especially given Wadsworth's popularity with regional audiences.

"The play is both fun and poignant," Janis said. "Ollie can make you laugh and break your heart, and he has put his all in this. `Tarnation' is storytelling at its best, and deserves a wide audience."

Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias @TellyHalkias




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