Wednesday, October 10, 2012

ASF: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"

Eight new acting interns at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival are performing in their first play on the Festival Stage. Laura Eason's pleasant adaptation of Mark Twain's 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has a limited public showing on only three Saturdays this  month, playing mostly to Schoolfest audiences on weekdays. -- This fresh ensemble, most of whom play multiple roles, are off to a good start.

Eason's stage version thankfully preserves most of the classic novel's key events -- Tom tricking friends to whitewash a fence, his innocent romance with Becky Thatcher, and his coming forward to testify in court saving Muff Potter from a murder charge and accusing Injun Joe of the crime -- but unfortunately either omits some of the book's dramatic events (Tom's inability to quote the Bible and win a prize), or glosses over them (Injun Joe's dramatic escape from the courtroom), or narrates others (almost always a weak substitute for dramatizing), especially at the end when the action simply stops.

This notwithstanding, director Nancy Rominger's engaging troupe's eagerness is a mark of their performances utilized for unobtrusive teaching moments for the young target audience. -- Yes, it is good to be free from responsibility when we are young, but even the merry pranksters have scruples, and Tom & Friends know right from wrong and when it matters most, they do the right thing.

Given their well-scrubbed appearance and the enthusiasm with which they address the play and their respective roles, and with scenic designer Peter Hicks' idyllic representation of a pre-Civil War Missouri town along the Mississippi River, it is clear that for them every day is an adventure, and we're along for the ride as Tom [Jim Staudt], Huckleberry Finn [David Umansky] and Joe Harper [Logan James Hall] play hooky, witness a murder and run away to nearby Jackson's Island to become pirates, and later search for buried treasure -- anything to resist the "civilizing" forces of school, church, and the tolerant  ministrations of Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas [Jillian Walker in both roles].

Mr. Staudt's ability to charm the other characters and the audience makes Tom's cleverness a delight; couple that with acrobatic talent and some moments of poignancy, and he centers the action. His tentative romance with Becky [Michelle Geisler] is so recognizably adolescent -- and Ms. Geisler's naive embarrassment at Tom's awkward wooing -- that their scenes together might make adult audiences reminisce and wish for more innocent days.

Mr. Umansky delivers a Huck Finn who avoids responsibility at almost any cost, but does so with a finesse that makes even his "civilizing" by the Widow Douglas credible. Seth Andrew Bridges plays Muff Potter sympathetically as the wrongly accused innocent; his simplicity in the role is admirable. Ms. Walker's portrayals of the two civilizing forces is done with honesty. Chris Pappas has an infectious smile as Tom's half-brother Sid, and a solidity as Doc Robinson, the murder victim. Mr. Hall's several roles (Joe Harper, the defense lawyer, accomplice, and townsperson) show a fine range of characterizations.

As the murderer Injun Joe, the School Master, and the Minister, Jason Martin disappears into each role so completely that he is hardly recognizable from one to the other...a sinister and ruthless criminal, a task-master teacher, and an evangelical preacher.

There is a lot of playfulness in this production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the collected talents of its youthful cast members anticipates further success this ASF season. Adult audiences might revisit their past innocence, and children will certainly receive valuable lessons about honesty from this show -- and they might even get to understand their parents a bit more.