Scott Ferguson, Playhouse on the Square's frequent guest director from Chicago, knows how to turn our cultural detritus into comic gold. Over the years, Ferguson, the founder of the Windy City's Theatrebarn and creator of Schoolhouse Rock Live, has served up deliciously trashy productions of The Mystery of Irma Vep, Saucy Jack & the Space Vixens, Bat Boy: The Musical, The Rocky Horror Show, and Return to the Forbidden Planet. No doubt about it, the man knows his kitsch from his camp and he knows how to milk the funny from all of it. Unfortunately, in spite of the broadly comic characters and a spot of cross-dressing, Big River, the sprawling musical adaptation of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is neither kitsch nor camp, and the gifted Ferguson seems out of his element. Why?
Okay, so it's not completely fair to pigeonhole Ferguson as a kitsch specialist. Sure, he once staged Xena the Warrior Princess Live!, but he also directed Circuit Playhouse's thoughtful production of Floyd Collins, an American folk musical about a deadly cave-in and the ensuing media circus. With its convincing country score by honky-tonk wit Roger Miller and a heady collection of intertwining themes about extraordinary friendships and man's predictably inhumane treatment of his fellow man, Big River is certainly a comic ancestor of the more seriously conceived Floyd Collins. But instead of diving into Twain's unsentimental world where childhood innocence meets moral ambiguity, Ferguson tries to knock us out with a one-two punch of silliness and sentiment. Mr. Clemens is surely spinning in his grave.
Former POTS company member Andrew Weir has a strong tenor voice and a winning personality, but he can't seem to unleash enough of his inner rapscallion to make the legendary Huck Finn breathe onstage. Unlike the grubby river rat, who revels in the fact that a low life can lead to high times, the well-scrubbed Weir looks like you couldn't make dirt stick to him with Super Glue. He most definitely doesn't come across as the kind of person who might fake his own murder by killing a hog and dumping its blood all around the room. The internal conflict Huck faces as he chooses between his friendship with the runaway slave Jim and his conscience telling him its against the law to relieve others of their property is never much of a conflict at all. This Huck just has to pause sometimes before doing the right thing ... even when the right thing is wrong.
Huck Finn is a juvenile Hamlet, and Twain wasn't too subtle indicating as much. But in this Big River, he's just a fun, spontaneous guy whose luck is often better than his judgment.
Ernest Hemingway once cautioned readers to stop reading Huckleberry Finn at the point where "Nigger Jim" is sold back into slavery for a mere $40. "All the rest is cheating," Hemingway wrote. And Pappy wasn't the first critic to charge Twain with losing his nerve in the book's closing chapters. It's almost like the misanthropic author of both Tom Sawyer and the heretical Letter From Earth looked deep into the future, figured somebody was going to turn his novel into a musical with a contrived happy ending, and decided to save all would-be adapters the trouble of ruining his masterpiece by ruining it in advance. If there is true kitsch to be mined, it's probably from these last scenes, which play out like a mockery of all things romantic. Conversely, these are the moments Ferguson has chosen to play straight.
Keith Patrick McCoy's Jim is a simple, easily wounded creation, whose boundless sweetness might lead one to wonder if the poor man was ever the victim of a bad brain injury. He's allowed his moments of heroism, but he's never allowed to be a man.
Each scene in Big River is set up like a Hee Haw skit and played out on a brown-on-brown set that is visually unappealing without the benefit of being particularly functional. As was always the case with Hee Haw, the artificiality of the characters and their performances is heightened to the level of burlesque. Only the Duke and King, a pair of con men and arguably the story's most artificial characters, achieve any level of dimension. In these roles, Jeremy Garrett and John Hemphill excel. From their mangled Shakespeare to their larcenous schemes, they never fail to amuse or to revolt.
Is Big River a wild romp with a couple of well-known literary characters? Sure it is, and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. But it could be much, much more.
At Playhouse on the Square through July 22nd