Moonlight Troupers’ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Good theater, like good fiction, convinces the audience to suspend its disbelief, and Mark Twain’s genius was his ability to convey place and personality with such unblinking realism that we embrace his story no matter how far-fetched. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that meant accepting that Tom (John Patterson), a kid from a good home, could be best friends with the town delinquent, Huck Finn (Erik W. Alexis); that he could enlist others to do his chores; that he could win Becky Thatcher’s (Veronica Somers) heart despite his clumsy gifts of dead rodents and doorknobs; that he could overcome his fears and summon the strength to save the day not once but twice — pitted against the cold-blooded killer Injun Joe (Rashad Ferguson) in a court of law, and again in a cave of death.
I expected no less from this Moonlight Troupers’ production, but director Lars Tatom didn’t live up to Twain. First, he gave the challenging script of an unproven show (2010) that was criticized as “tame” even on Broadway to a cast composed mostly of debutants. He toyed with casting and costumes to the point of confusion. He failed to provide adequate direction to piece together episodes into a story. The result is a crazy quilt stitched in the dark by novices without a pattern. Were it not for the valiant performances of two seasoned actors, there would be no thread to hold the patchwork together.
The program gives time and place as 1870s’ Missouri: one decade after the Emancipation Proclamation in a Civil War border state. Yet an African American plays the title role. The cast is attired in Depression-era garb, as if to lend plausibility to this innocent interracial love story. But if that were possible, there’d have been no need for the Civil Rights movement 30 years later. Revising history for artistic purposes does not change it.
Further non-traditional casting works with Flavia Perrotta in the pants role of Tom’s brother Sid and Vicki Goutzoulis as the androgynously dressed Doc Robinson. But neither decision added to the play. The choice of veteran actor Jerry Vess as Aunt Polly in drag, however, was inspired. With his authentic southern accent and comedic timing, he is perfect in the role.
Outside his sphere, the funny parts of this show aren’t funny.
Technically, the production is as convoluted as Tom’s tallest tales, dark as Injun Joe’s cave and dead as Doc Robinson. Dialogue is often indecipherable and delivered upstage. Blocking is vague with shifting boundaries. People walk through imaginary walls and get lost after taking four steps. The generic hick accents are insulting, and the random snatches of folk music that sometimes usher in the choppy scenes are brief or inaudible. Only the square dances, which serve as prologue and epilogue, provide excitement.
Most of these problems could — and should — have been fixed.
Actors sound more positive notes. Alexis’s Huck is nuanced and credible. Ferguson does a good bad seed. Somers’ Becky is coy and cute. Justin Hargadon makes a spirited Minister.