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Alpena Civic Theatre presents ‘An Evening with Mark Twain’

Courtesy Photo In this photo taken by Anne Belanger of the Presque Isle District Library, Karl W. Heidemann performs as Mark Twain. He will be entertaining audiences at Alpena Civic Theatre on July 24 and 26.

ALPENA — A thought-provoking, historical and comedic performance awaits those who attend Alpena Civic Theatre’s “An Evening with Mark Twain” on Friday, July 24, and Sunday, July 26.

Only 45 tickets are being sold for each performance in order to provide for social distancing between parties in the theater, which normally can seat 146, according to Director Jay Kettler.

Karl W. Heidemann of Rogers City will be portraying Twain in this two-hour performance.

“Mark Twain is truly one of the greatest writers that ever wrote in America,” Heidemann said. “The stuff that he wrote is so topical, even now. Because it’s universal truths, and he wrote the truth about America and about this country.”

Heidemann noted that laughs are in store for audience members.

“His idea was that you can gain more by humor — people will listen, they’ll laugh, and then they’ll remember,” he said. “And perhaps that can change minds.”

He said Twain wrote more than a century ago, and still we struggle with many of the same issues.

“Well, here we are over 100 years later,” Heidemann said. “We still have some of the same problems with race that he talked about at that time.”

He went through a wealth of materials, including Twain’s books, lectures and oral dictations, and selected which ones, with the help of Kettler, to include in this performance.

“The real problem is condensing it,” Heidemann said. “Because there’s so much,” and it’s all so good.

Kettler and Heidemann have been working together for about 15 years, and they communicate well. They both agreed it works best when Kettler is the director, and not vice versa.

“The nicest thing is, I can make a suggestion, and Karl will contemplate it, and say, ‘Yes, this will work for me, and this will work for Mark Twain,'” Kettler said. “Other things, it’s just a silly director making a stupid suggestion, and we know each other well enough, and he’ll say, ‘That’s not going to work for Mark Twain.'”

He said he couldn’t have picked anyone better than Heidemann for this role.

“So we have a combination of someone who loves the literature he’s doing and has the talent to project it,” Kettler said. “The humor, the characterizations, the transformation that Karl makes from being Mark Twain, fully in character, to being Huckleberry Finn, and he looks the character and acts the character, and it’s so enjoyable.”

Kettler said he’s seen others perform Twain, and that Heidemann is up there with the best he’s encountered.

“I had the joy of seeing ‘Mark Twain Tonight’ performed at the high school I taught at, by Hal Holbrook,” Kettler recalled. “And Karl is as good as, if not better than, Hal Holbrook was, because Karl is closer to the age Mark Twain was,” he added with a laugh.

“I’m exactly the age Mark Twain was when he was doing his final lecture tour,” said Heidemann, 70.

He has grown his hair and mustache specifically for this performance.

“The hair has just continued to grow,” he said. “That’s good for the mustache. It still isn’t as wild as Twain’s, but the hair is maybe just a little bit too long.”

While much of the material is bound to elicit a chuckle, some is serious.

One of the selected items is from “Huckleberry Finn” and does contain the N-word twice, as Huck Finn’s father is portrayed as extremely racist. There is no swearing in this performance, but Heidemann and Kettler wanted to give fair warning about that word to those who are planning to attend.

“He uses it to illustrate his aversion to discrimination by putting it in the mouths of people who are blatantly racist,” Heidemann explained.

“An Evening with Mark Twain” will be at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 24, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 26. There is no Saturday performance to allow volunteers to clean and disinfect the theater in between performances, Kettler said.

Tickets are $10 each, general admission, and must be paid in advance by calling the box office at 989-354-3624. Tickets will be available for pickup under a tent outside the theater prior to each show, Kettler said.

The show will include three 35-minute sessions and two intermissions, Kettler said.

He said masks are required inside the building, and that audience members will be seated every other row and with two seats in between household groups.

All proceeds will go toward ACT’s expenses, as they have had no revenue since the mandatory shutdown began in mid-March.

“It’ll be a wonderful night of entertainment,” Kettler said. “Some parts are hilarious, and some parts are touching and tender.”

Heidemann will also be doing this same performance in Rogers City at the Rogers City Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 7, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 9.

Originally, Heidemann had planned to do this performance as part of the Smithsonian exhibit that had been planned for the Presque Isle District Library, Heidemann said. But that was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So Heidemann agreed to do it as a fundraiser for ACT and then Rogers City Theater.

“It’s a wonderful experience for me to go in depth to Mark Twain and try to figure out what he was talking about,” Heidemann said. “You know, you look at ‘Huck Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer’ and you think, ‘Oh, those are books for kids,’ but there’s a lot in there, and it really is the American story.”

He said the performance will also shed light on who Twain was as a human.

“It isn’t just a story that we’re telling,” he said. “You also get to see and know and hear Mark Twain in his own words, talk about himself, his life, how he grew up, and the country as he was growing up, and how it developed.”

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