Review by Doug Iden of Tom Sawyer: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Mark Twain and Shakespeare? Seems a little incongruous but this delightful production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company theater bridges the gap. I half expected a line such as: “Get thee thy brush and paint yonder fence”. But, alas, there were no such lines. The lines that do remain are a quick-paced but a significantly sanitized and politically correct adaptation of Twain’s memorable story by Laura Eason. But the real vision comes from Director Sara Clark who relishes the playful and adventurous abandon of childhood. Nothing is impossible for imaginative active youngsters from which adults could learn a significant lesson and that becomes the heart of this production. The play has its dark sides, yes, but the youthful spirit of adventure shines through.
Admittedly, you are in the world of “suspension of disbelief” as adults cavort on the stage as teenagers but both the dialogue and charisma of the actors helps transcend the audience into the youthful world of Hannibal, Missouri in the 1800’s. Only eight actors portray numerous characters plus the ensemble. An ongoing narration by different actors, performed almost like new bulletins, informs us of scene changes, time lapses, etc. but helps move the story along briskly.
The star, of course, is Tom Sawyer, played with charismatic glee by Cary Davenport. Davenport, literally, bounces around the stage with an almost continuously infectious smile. His effervescent élan and love of life brightens the entire production. Tom and his buddy Huck Finn (Kyle Brumley) open the production with their series of adventures including playing hookey and fishing. Huck is an abandoned youngster who lives on his own and lives by his own rules. Aunt Polly (Miranda McGee) who is raising Tom thinks that Huck is a bad influence and tries to steer her charge away from the homeless boy. But that, of course, only encourages Tom to continue his activities with Huck.
Next, we see the domestic side of Sawyer’s life with Aunt Polly and Tom’s brother Sid played with a bored vacancy by Justin McCombs. It’s the juxtaposition of Sid, who is straight-laced and well groomed, with Tom who is reckless and sloppily dressed, that signifies Twain’s social satire. There’s just enough “meat” in the story to be interesting as adult fare.
Romance appears as Tom becomes smitten by Becky Thatcher (Caitlin McWethy) who plays a coquettish teenage girl in a blue gingham dress who flirts with Tom but has an on-again, off-again relationship throughout the show.
But all is not sweetness and light as Tom and Huck witness a murder in the cemetery committed by the infamous Injun Joe, portrayed menacingly by Christopher Jordan Salazar. Injun Joe frames his companion Muff Porter (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II) who is then condemned to be hanged. This creates a moral dilemma for Tom and Huck. Do they stay silent and watch Muff hang or divulge what they saw and become possible victims of Injun Joe’s retribution?
The set, lighting and costuming become integral components of Sara Clark’s vision. Unlike the two previous shows in their new theater which used a plethora of technical toys, this set (designed by Shannon Robert) is much more “old school” and extremely effective. The stage is a multi-tiered, wooden structure with a futuristic tree in the back on one side and a platform on the other. Both structures have different uses throughout the play. But the ingenious part is the multi-tiered stage. In keeping with the childlike theme of the story, the actors would pull up parts of the stage and create different illusions including a river (with real water), a campfire, gravestones and several scenes with desks or pews both in a school and in church. It almost appears as though the children/actors were playing with Lincoln Logs or Legos as they continuously reconstruct the set as the play progresses. Salazar (Injun Joe) also plays the firebrand minister and the disciplinarian teacher in the church and school scenes.
Denise Watkins has designed costumes which clearly differentiate the adults from the children. The adults wear traditional Puritanical garb with high necks, long skirts and suit coats for the men. In contrast, the children wear very loose clothes which don’t always match and many are barefoot. With one exception, we see Sid dressed as the Victorian idea that children are “small adults” and has a suit. One comic sight gag at the end shows Huck dressed in a suit after being adopted by the Widow Douglas (Miranda McGee).
The lighting designed by Justen Locke is also very effective. The play starts with a yellow backdrop indicating a new day. You almost want to start singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”. The projections then change throughout. In one scene, we see lighting bleeding out of the bottom of the tiered stage. However, it is the cave scenes when the lighting (or lack thereof) works best because it adds to the terror and menace of Becky and Tom getting lost and then being pursued by Injun Joe.
The audience was a mixture of adults and children. This is a good family show and the kids seemed to enjoy the production as much as the adults. It is also very funny, especially during the first act. All of the offensive language from the original book has been excised although they have retained much of river vernacular. The kids in the play show the adults how to have fun and begin to realize their dreams.
So, grab your steamboat or your raft and float down to the Otto Budig Theater for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer running through December 9.