Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Big River" Goes Through Rapids and Still Waters (Theatre Review)

In the middle of a dark, wet night, two men huddle on a raft in the Mississippi River.  One, a slave named Jim, curls a blanket around his shoulders, and a teenager named Huck sits, singing to himself, letting himself get drenched.

In the Hale Center Theater Orem's production of Big River, this image is brought to us uncluttered by choreography or overdramatic singing.  Not only that, it's enhanced by a silent, slouching Greek chorus on the sidelines--hat-wearing musicians strumming away at guitars, crooning on a violin, or making frog noises.

Director Christopher Clark has brought the piece to life in a way that remains fresh for its two hours traffic.  A small group of actors, all white except for two black characters, transform to fit Huck's episodic experiences. Sets and moods change as mutual efforts between the actors and the intimate space in the Hale Theatre--music, noises, and characters bloom out everywhere, like a swampy garden of strange-smelling flowers.

The cast consists almost completely of skilled multitaskers--musicians, character actors, singers, dancers, and creators of ambiance.  Under musical direction from Justin Bills (who clunks away with us at a disguised keyboard in a hat), the musicians seem (besides a few hiccups) to be completely in sync and in control.  Guitarist Kris Paries takes as many chances as he gets to shine, and Spencer Carter and Ben Parkes keep the show rolling with their consistent musicianship.  It's a bit of a gamble to try and have live instruments supporting microphoned singers, however, and at a few too many moments a certain inequality makes one party or the other seem overbloated, making a singer seem unsupported or a singing ensemble get swallowed up.

Great performances abound in this production.  The female ensemble gets less credit than it deserves, playing dogs, Western saloon girls, boys, and more, and giving some pretty specific life to every role they take on.  The men work hard as well, though it's clear that all their juggling of different roles has them a little confused at times (except for Spencer Carter, who creates four or five extremely specific characters who are so easy to distinguish that I breathed a sigh of relief when he appeared on stage.) Melanie McKay Cartwright sings beautifully as the underwritten Mary Jane.

Innovation runs through it

But the real star of the show is undoubtedly Jim, played by Conlon Bonner.  He first enters during the opener, setting up chairs and carrying umbrellas for Aunt Eller and the Widow Douglas, and though he doesn't say a word, he draws the eye more than anyone on stage.  Like a classic Disney character, his movement is specific, humorous, and energetic, and like great characters of any kind, there is a bloody, beating heart at the center of his performance.  Oh, and he's got a real pretty voice, too.

Andrew Robertson has just about a perfect look for Huckleberry, with a heroic face and the body of a boy ready for manhood but not quite there yet.  There's no overdoing it for Mr. Robertson, who narrates the play in a very understated manner, and whose singing is pleasant.

Sadly, his performance struggles from a problem that hangs over the whole production.  The Great American novel Huck Finn tells a pair of stories--one is about slavery and America, about injustice and pathos inside the heart of the simpleton slave Jim.  The other is about white people--lots of 'em.  Frontier folk making towns out of nothing, living in their own forms of abject poverty and stupidity.  But where Bonner's Jim is uneducated but soulful, the poor white folk on the shore of this big river are barely caricatures.  

This is thrown into even more contrast when some more real characters appear onstage.  In a violent, rowdy turn (did he say "bitches" on a Utah stage?) Daniel Fenton Anderson plays a mean Pap, who rails drunkenly at the government and then tries to kill his son with a shiv.  This whole sequence, however, seems pretty glossed over, and even if Pap is generally a despicable guy, he still seems to know that he's fallen far, saying "I hope you'll remember your father in a better time." The Duke and the King are rather vile men, but in moments where they audience should want to strangle them a lingering sense of comedy remains behind, and their full symbolic potential remains unlocked.

It seems that white people forget that privilege, middle-class-ness, and Christianity are not their birthright alone, and that brokenness, drunkenness, and self-justified evil are not the diseases of lesser peoples.  Huck's journey is not only a journey of shrugging off racism, it is one of understanding morality in general.  When Huck reaches up to the heavens and says "I have lived in the darkness for so long/I'm waiting for the light to shine", he's not thinking about slaves.  He's thinking about his own soul.  In a sense, this journey seemed never to surface, even though it really is the current that pushes the play along.

Perhaps another cousin of this weakness comes in the performance of the music.  It is impressive, without a doubt--the whole show is a darn masterful accomplishment for community theatre--but much of the music lacks energy.  The overture seems less like a river and more like an algae-ridden pond, beautiful, serene, and quiet.  The few pieces that really drive and lift the audience come from the black characters.  But looking into any sort of impoverished population, one finds how important music becomes as entertainment and sociality.  I ached for some foot-stomping, some rowdy shouting, and some passion in the score, but much of it involved some very serene-looking musicians standing quietly swaying in the corners.  (Thought it should be noted that I saw a Monday night performance.  Who knows what it looks like on Friday nights?) 

Still, these complaints are asking for perfection when all the reviewer saw was pretty excellent.  I commend the cast and crew of Big River on an enjoyable evening, and obviously one that made me think a lot.  And for those of you reading, go see it.  We can't expect our innovative theatre to thrive if we don't support it.

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