Hip Shot: Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza!
Studio Theatre- Stage 4
Saturday, July 13, 2:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 20, 6:45 p.m.
Tuesday, July 23, 9:30 p.m.
Friday, July 26, 6:45 p.m.
Saturday, July 27, 10:30 p.m.
They say: "Pointless Theater presents a puppet-packed vaudeville spectacular for all ages! Mark Twain's Riverboat extravaganza invites you to join Twain, his characters and the ghost of Lincoln on a riotous journey through America's most iconic tall tales."
Sophia's Take: The opening musical number went off without a hitch. We were getting to the crux of our first tall tale. Rip van Winkle was juuuust about to realize how long he'd slept on that mountainside when... blue lights started flashing and the fire alarm went off!
The actors looked at each other. The audience looked at each other, and then back at the actors. You know the look I mean. It's the one that says, Uhhhh, what happens now? Many a seasoned Fringe- goer has seen it. Actors often throw this furtive glance, usually with nothing but their own lack of preparation to blame. If only all performers could be as well rehearsed as the cast of Mark Twin's Riverboat Extravaganza! Maybe then they all would roll with the punches that live theater can throw with the same aplomb as this delightful ensemble. If only... sigh.
So what happened next? Mark Twain kept right on narrating, that's what. He narrated the cast to a halt and his audience out the door. The cast joined the us on the sidewalk and stayed in character in whole time. The delay was brief, 10 or 15 minutes, maybe. We were given a choice: Stay for an abbreviated version of the show, or request tickets to a future performance. Most stayed. The cast sang, danced and puppeteered their way through as much of the show as they could in the time that remained.
But false alarms aside, I knew we were in good hands from the outset. As the lights dimmed the players cutely peeked out at the audience from behind the set. David Lloyd Olson, as Twain, hobbled out on his cane and drew his first laugh by drawing air loudly through his nostrils. Advertised as a 'vaudeville spectacular' Mark Twain's Riverboat Extravaganza! wastes no time getting silly. The acts do have more of a through line, however, than a traditional variety show. Playwright John Hamilton asks 'What is the American Mythology?' He traces the history of America from 1776 to 1900 through our tall tales.
It's a play-within-a play of sorts. Rebecca Ballinger, Frank Cervarich, Tim German, and Zachary Latta, all play Twain characters: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and so on. Being funny is about having good timing. This ensemble, under the direction of Devin Mahoney, has the combination of precision and pace required to get the laughs.
If any one player gets left behind it's Rachel Menyuk, as Abe Lincoln. This very honest Abe is the narrative foil to Twain, tempering the scribe's tendency to exaggerate. The Abe puppet itself is traditionally vaudevillian: wooden with a clicking jaw and shifty eyes. Menyuk, however, must project her lines from behind the set piece, over the din of the stage action, and over the music playing from speakers that are hung directly above the audience. Unfortunately much of her dialogue is lost. It seems a little unfair considering that what I could hear of her delivery was very funny.
This is the only instance, however, when the technical challenges of puppetry get in anyone's way. Overall the masks, the spooky shadow puppets, the marionettes, you name it, are enchanting. In one vignette, the tale of John Henry the Steel-Driver is told through a duel of ensemble-manipulated machine and a tap dancing Henry, played by Tim German. The effect is impressive and amusing.
It's a good thing, too, because amusement is the name of this game. Mark Twain's Riverboat Extravaganza! does not attempt to offer any serious analysis of the American character or our mythology. And yet it's interesting to watch our folktales strung together in chronological order like this. The rural landscape that let Washington Irving's imagination run wild gives way to the industrialized world we now inhabit. Through these tales, for better or worse, you can hear the values of industriousness and competition take root. You can also hear, entirely for the better, a long tradition of humor in American storytelling.
See it if: You're a little kid. Or you're a kid at heart, but wise enough to expect quality and professionalism from your theater artists.
Skip it if: You have no patience for puppets, tall tales, and adhere with puritan zealotry to the facts of American history.