Huck Finn at the Childrens Theatre Company

Ansa Akyea in Huck Finn. Photo by Dan Norman.

Ansa Akyea in Huck Finn. Photo by Dan Norman.

CTC presents us with a seriously Bowdlerized version of Mark Twain‘s difficult masterwork, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (Childrens Theatre Co., through April 4). Calling their version Huck Finn, versatile director/adapter Greg Banks (he did CTC’s marvelous Pinnocchio a few season’s back) eliminated much – most – of the book’s often crude and racially insensitive story material. In the program, Twain receives credit as Huck Finn‘s author; I’m not sure enough of his work is sufficiently present to justify this.

Perhaps the biggest change has been in the character of Jim, the escaped slave who teams up with the peripatetic Huck and rafts out onto the Big River, into the heart of the young country, to find freedom. To find his true self. In the original, everyone – and Twain himself – dismisses this wonderful, generous man as “Nigger Jim.” Indeed, Twain’s casual use of this term – the n-word appears in the book 217 times – is primarily what makes The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn so problematic. Banks, naturally (and wisely), eliminates the term and thus Jim (played by the uber-talented Ansa Akyea) is stolid and solid, dignified, almost regal. Akyea is a large man and his Jim projects a delicious fluidity, an affecting sweetness and calm. He is easily the most imposing character in the play.

But as a result, Huck’s dilemma – Should I rat Jim out? Write to the widow and tell her where her “property” is? – doesn’t really land. It seems forced, as does the apparent willingness of the other characters to take advantage of Jim’s vulnerability. We know Jim is the finest example of humanity in the story; nothing untoward will happen to him. Huck Finn thus lacks suspense, a problem exacerbated by the loss of so much story material.

But many pleasures remain. In particular: the summer vibe. The story of Huck and his cohorts floating down the wide rushing Mississippi in high summer, the fog, the fish, the farms, the heat, the raft, the wild stars, is intact. And now, at the end of the difficult Winter of 2014/15 – canny timing – it exalts: I want to live in Huck Finn.

The design contributes mightily to this effect: Joseph Stanley‘s perfect minimalist set, Mary Ann Culligan‘s sumptuous costumes, all lit exquisitely by Paul Whitaker. They make us feel the heat, smell the newly mown fields. Ahhhhhhhh, yes.

The essence of Huck Finn is multi-casting: three actors – Akyea, the super-athletic Dean Holt and Reed Sigmund (CTC’s goofy Fatty Arbuckle in residence) – play all the characters with resourcefulness, verve and lightning-quick costume changes. I’ve mentioned the wonderfulness of Ansa Akyea. Holt and Sigmund play the other roles with all the creativity we’ve come to expect from these two. Were I an out-of-towner who’d never before seen Holt and Sigmund, they would have blown me away. But these actors appear in (almost) every CTC play. Wonderful? Definitely. Over-familiar? I have to say yes. But no doubt you would disagree with this. If so, please disregard the above.

These three are nicely rounded out by talented musicians Victor Zupanc and Joe Cruz, onstage throughout.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book Tell Me A Story In The Dark will be published shortly by Familius, Inc. You may wish to check out his websites: www.tellmeastoryinthedark.com and the revamped www.johnolive.net.

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