Thomas Paine was an idealist whose name defined him. An early, and extreme, egalitarian radical, he was crucial to the founding of America with his inspirational writings, but a pain to some of the founding fathers. Despite authoring the best-selling American book of all time, by the time he died only six people attended his funeral.
If you find reading history a bit dry, watch it come to life onstage as writer/performer Ian Ruskin brings his one-man show, “To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine,” to the Electric Lodge in Venice. But hurry, there are only four more performances, including tonight, June 27.
The production brings to light the life of an influential, but overlooked, British-born American citizen whose writings helped galvanize the cause of the American revolution and was, controversially, an early anti-slavery activist and freethinker. He believed in equal rights for all and that the common man was the backbone of the new nation, in contrast to those who preferred it to be run by the elite landowners.
His views on religion were controversial; born a Quaker, he was against organized religion and became a deist, someone who believes that God is revealed through human reason and in the workings of nature. This, above all, earned him vast enmity and infamy.
The phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” That’s Thomas Paine, who wrote “Common Sense,” “The American Crisis,” “The Rights of Man” and “Age of Reason.” While these books brought him great renown, they did not bring him wealth. He gave away the publishing rights and was always wanting for money.
He failed as a corset maker and became a tax collector in England. Writing a petition demanding that tax collectors be paid more got him fired. An avid debater who inhabited the “caf√© culture” of his age, he met Benjamin Franklin and with nothing to lose, moved to the British-American colonies, settling in Philadelphia, where he became a journalist, crusading writer and political theorist.
“Common Sense” was essential to advancing the cause of independence from England, and “The American Crisis,” written between 1776 and 1783, fired up the troops that would fight the battles to win that independence.
Later Paine moved to France, and wrote “The Rights of Man,” a defense of the French revolution. Through no effort of his own, he was elected to the French National Convention but got caught in the crossfire between the revolutionary factions and was imprisoned. He nearly died in the dungeon, and was released just prior to his scheduled execution.
A proto-Marxist, Paine penned “Agrarian Justice,” proposing the Americans pay property and estate taxes to fund pensions and to give men a fixed sum upon maturity to create their own futures and fortunes.
A man far ahead of his time, his complicated personality and political insights are made manifest in Ian Ruskin’s “To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine.” The play will be seen at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts Festival, and is onstage at The Electric Lodge in Venice June 27 through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets and info can be found at http://theharrybridgesproject.org.
Masters of the vine
Have you ever wondered about the world of the sommelier, the expert who helps choose just the right wine to pair with your meal? Did you ever think they were nothing more than snobby tasters who were just imposing their tastes on you, or worse, pulling a fast one?
The wonderful new documentary film “SOMM” will change your mind as it reveals the highly secretive world of the Master Sommelier, a 40-year-old organization whose members comprise an elite group of fewer than 200 people worldwide.
We are privileged to meet and follow the lives of four outstanding young practitioners who are about to embark on the hardest challenge of their lives: the nearly impossible-to-pass Master Sommelier test.
The antithesis of the hyperactive Iron Chef contests on TV, this film offers an incredibly engaging, quietly dramatic, enlightening, humorous and human look at the journey undertaken by these intensely dedicated wine lovers.
The four characters the film focuses on are a surprisingly unstuffy lot and the outcome of their test results also surprised me. We meet bearded Brian, dapper DLynn, bald-pated Dustin and hyper-diligent Ian, dubbed “Dad” by the others.
The studying is relentless, wives and girlfriends put their lives on hold, and mentors provide grueling tutelage. We travel the world in a wine glass as we follow their progress from months out to minutes before and after their tests, and we’re in the room as they’re told whether or not their sacrifice has paid off.
Instead of competing against each other, each candidate becomes a support system for the other; they learn to face and handle stress, fatigue and the emotional rollercoaster that the Master Sommelier test involves.
What drives each of them to achieve the ultimate prize for their obsession is unique and we follow that struggle and where it will take them.
You can still catch “SOMM” at Sundance Sunset Cinemas in West Hollywood or find it on iTunes. Highly recommended.
Last minute suggestions
West L.A.-based choreographer Raiford Rogers presents his “bracingly contemporary” company’s newest ballet “Schubert’s Silence,” partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, at 8 p.m. this Saturday, June 29 at Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Theatre. www.luckmanarts.org
City Garage features an audience Q&A with Polish playwright Magda Romanska following the Sunday, June 30 4 p.m. performance of her world premiere play, “Opheliamachine,” now onstage at the Bergamot Station-based theatre. Tickets at www.citygarage.org.
And back by popular demand, Louis Pearl, “The Amazing Bubble Man,” will be at Edgemar Center for the Arts on June 29 and 30, with performances at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. He’s been thrilling audiences around the world for over 30 years with the art, magic, science and fun of bubbles. Call (310) 392-7327 for tickets.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.