By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
On the speaking circuit of 19th-century America, no one commanded greater audiences than Mark Twain. Just as Charles Dickens mastered the format across the pond in England, the author of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer crisscrossed the country, reading his books to sold-out crowds.
Wendy Bable’s Mark Twain: Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers builds on this historical fact. She set her play in 1904, the self-proclaimed last lecture of Twain first annual final farewell tour. This introduction sets the tone for the evening: a bit whimsical, with a hint of Twain’s sardonic, bubble-bursting humor. People’s Light and Theatre Company’s production offers a bit of the same: an enjoyable and educational means to expose kids (nine and up, at least) to both reading and live performance.
Bable’s play blends elements from both: While Twain (Tom Teti) begins reading, a pair of “advance men” (Chris Bresky and Akeem Davis) bring out a lectern, pitcher of water and steamer trunk as the only set pieces on Jess Ford’s vaudeville-era stage (adorned nicely with clamshell-covered footlights). This trio re-enacts some of Twain’s most famous stories, including the whitewash episode that opens Tom Sawyer and the story of a betting man and a jumping frog that launched Twain’s journalistic career.
Teti imbues Twain’s wit with as much sparkle as his white-on-white suit, and presents him not so much as the nation’s conscience, but as an advocate for harmless mischief, free thi
nking, and a comedic crusader against Puritan morality. The antics of the two advance men provide the bulk of the entertainment; Davis amuses as a revivalist preacher, Bresky as a pianist adding maladroit musical selections to each enacted episode.
Hearing these stories reminds us how little has changed. Teenagers still attend church to be together in the dark, young boys embark on epic backyard adventures, and an entrepreneurial spirit like Twain can bounce between careers as a failed miner, steamboat captain and publisher before finding the footing that brought him his fame.
Bable adds one interlude of conscience that touches the controversy still surrounding Twain’s books. It obtrudes on the spirit of fun, but also adds a “teachable moment” (to borrow a noxious phrase Twain no doubt would have despised), enabling parents to steer the after-show conversation from “what’s a steamboat?” to a more enlightening “why wouldn’t they say that word?”
And isn’t that what Twain’s books and modern theater should prompt anyway?
Mark Twain: Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers. Through November 4 at People’s Light and Theatre Company, 29 Conestoga Road, Malvern. Tickets: $25-$40. 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org