Friday, January 31, 2014
Review: For a fun night of theatre, Tom Sawyer is a must-see
Every aspect of WaterTower’s production was impeccable.
ADDISON Right now, I’m sure you’re all dreaming of a nice summer day of lazing around doing nothing, or maybe going down to the river, chewing on some dried grass and spending a couple of hours frolicking. WaterTower has made that possible for you, even with this cold, Texas winter weather. You don’t have to do it alone, though; you’ll get Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the rest of Mark Twain’s characters to enjoy it with you during the regional premiere of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
There have been so many adaptations of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer brought to the stage, I couldn’t even tell you what number this one is. Laura Eason was commissioned by The Hartford Stage Company to write this new adaptation. It was produced on stage in 2010. As time went by, the show made its way to several small theatres on the east coast. It wasn’t until 2011 when Actor’s Theatre of Louisville and Saint Louis Repertory collaborated with a co-production that started to get noticed around the country.
Eason adapted the Mark Twain book in a way that follows the Tom Sawyer story to a tee, but is condensed down to a typical theatre run time. The adventure starts with Tom playing in the river with friend Huckleberry Finn. From there, young Sawyer’s life unfolds, from school to church, as he proceeds to get into trouble. Along the way he finds himself falling in love with Becky. Things get complicated when he and Huckleberry witness the murder of Doctor Robinson. To avoid any trouble Tom, Huckleberry and Joe decide to run away and float down the river. After some time on the river, the realization that an innocent man could die for the murder of Dr. Robinson, the boys head back to set things straight.
Bringing Eason’s show to life is Director Emily Scott Banks. From the set to the lights to the blocking, Banks went above and beyond with this production. Every aspect of this show was extremely well done and attention to detail could be seen throughout the entire production. Tom Sawyer’s blocking was extremely technical, as was the whole show. The action kept moving, keeping the audience visually entertained. Banks took care to make the dialects correct, as that can make or break a play. It would be difficult to give enough accolades to Banks for the job she did.
She had a lot of help, though, with one of the strongest casts I’ve seen in a long time. Actors and actresses playing multiple roles make casting even more important.
Andrews Cope leads the group as Tom Sawyer. An incredible talent on stage, Cope’s ability to bring both the emotional and the physical parts of Sawyer to life was wonderful to watch. The character is extremely demanding due to the fact he’s on stage the entire time. From start to finish, Cope never looked tired. There were several times when Sawyer would turn and narrate to the audience. I would look around and the entire audience was captivated. You could see he had the audience eating out of his hand and wanting more. This was one of the top performances I’ve seen since Hal Holbrook did Mark Twain.
Garret Storms did an incredible job with his character. Huckleberry Finn is the first friend of Tom’s to enter the stage. While Finn is funny, it’s not until you see Storms in the bright yellow dress, as Sawyer's first fiancé, that the comedy begins. Finn is a strong, manly character, so when Storms enters as a female, the audience couldn’t stop laughing. Storms’ over emphasizing female facial expressions became almost too much to bear. His interaction with Sawyer was incredibly solid as well.
Sawyer’s true love is Becky Thatcher, a schoolmate. Cast to portray this pertinent role was Tabitha Ray. Ten minutes after she enters, Thatcher must fall in love with Tom, break up with him and then miss his presence. Ray was so good at expressing all those emotions I never questioned it. Not only was Ray’s southern dialect flawless, but her mannerisms truly portrayed a 16-year-old southern belle. The chemistry between Ray and Cope was so incredibly good, I found myself wincing, wanting to help them during the entire cave scene.
Jeff Wittekiend was a pleasure to watch in his role as Sid Sawyer, Tom’s half brother. Though Sid has several scenes in the play, Wittekiend’s true talent was seen in his portrayal of Doc Robinson. The fight scene was quite detailed and difficult to perform, but he had no problem with the choreography. Wittekiend's roles of Sid and Doc Robinson varied tremendously. His ability to play each character so differently simply with his mannerisms and voice that he didn’t need to change costumes.
Another actor that had to become versatile in his roles was Van Quattro. His prominent character, seen in the beginning, is the pastor. Later on, he transforms into Injun Joe. It’s hard enough to change characters in a show but to change ethnicity made the challenge twice as hard. What an incredible job Quattro did -- minor tweaks in his stance, demeanor and facial expressions transformed him into a completely different character.
Injun Joe’s accomplice is Muff Potter, played by Tom Lenaghen. Muff is a drunken, small-time criminal that gets framed for murder. Portraying a drunk is not necessarily hard but playing a drunk convincingly is. An actor can take being intoxicated too far but Lenaghen never hit that point. His talent became even more noticeable with his ensemble characters. His ability to change into a “straight and narrow” character at the change of scene was impressive.
I don’t think I could have found anybody more perfect for the role of Aunt Polly than Nancy Sherrard. Her presence was unmistakable each time she entered. She took the stern Aunt Polly to a more realistic persona. In the book, Aunt Polly is written as a grouchy, stern, and mean spirited parental figure where Sherrard gave her a more caring side, to bring a whole new feeling to the character, and personally, I liked what she did with it.
Joe Harper follows Huck and Tom down the river for fun. Jake Buchanan brought electricity to this character during the entire scene. The choreography between the three characters on their trip was incredible to watch. As well as being Joe Harper and ensemble characters, Buchanan basically becomes another narrator. Unfortunately, every time he narrated, we couldn’t hear him over the underscore music playing.
Sound Designer Jordana Abrenica has a lot to be proud of in her work. The music throughout was not necessarily period but worked well within the play. I was constantly tapping my feet to the beat throughout the show. Her use of effects for jumping in the river and other moments were perfectly created and executed.
WaterTower’s space is a tall with cinder block walls. Michael Sullivan took full advantage of those textured walls, leaving them exposed as part of the set. A U-shaped catwalk surrounded the entire acting area with exposed lumber. The back wall under the catwalk was filled in with corrugated steel. Downstage there was a 3-foot-tall planked platform that went the full width of the theatre which was used as dock. This also becomes the front porch in later scenes. Upstage of the dock was left empty but was utilized as the river in certain scenes. The set was fun to look at but was also versatile, with escape stairs on both sides. The exposed walls and corrugated steel gave an almost industrial look to the whole set. There were a lot of hidden gems in this set as well, with bits of the set coming apart to become things like a boat or the grave for Doc Robinson. Sullivan’s set was extremely well thought out and built.
I can be hyper critical with lighting, it’s just in my nature, but the lighting for this play was incredible. Dan Schoedel's use of templates made enough texture to show depth on the stage but never really over took or became overbearing to the point of distraction. His plot had LED lights shining straight down the walls, not only adding to the texture but it also making the space look twice as large. The contrast in color through the whole play was impressive and eye pleasing. Continuity was at the fore front. If a scene was in the chapel, you knew it; outdoors, you knew it. In the very first scene, Schoedel colors the open area upstage with aqua LED’s and spinning templates, making it look exactly like a river. His use of isolation extenuated the blocking that Banks did throughout. This was one of the best lighting jobs I’ve seen in years.
The costuming was just one more positive for this production. Robin Armstrong hit the nail on the head with the period looks she created. What really got me, though, was the attention to detail she put into the costumes. Finn’s clothes looked like he’d been wearing them for years. All the way down to the frayed pants, they looked the part. I loved Sid Sawyer’s outfit the best, though. Sid wore knickers, but when the actor transformed into other characters, his pants were rolled down. You couldn’t even tell they were the knickers. The dresses were absolutely period and really beautiful to look at. I was impressed by how authentic she went with the bloomer undergarments that could be seen under the dresses. Lastly, the shoes that were used looked period as well. Armstrong made a very cohesive costume design from beginning to end.
There are few times that I will say you simply have to see a particular play. This is one of them. Every aspect of WaterTower’s production was impeccable. It’s been a long time since I’ve had that much fun in a theatre. Get your tickets now and see history and great literature come to life!
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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