Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: 'Mark Twain: Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers'

Family fare that both delights and educates, while reminding how little in a child's adventurous spirit has changed over 100 years.

Review: 'Mark Twain: Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers'

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Tom Teti, Chris Bresky and Akeem Davis in "Mark Twain: Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers"

By Jim Rutter


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

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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