Few authors can get away with threatening their critics like Mark Twain. Visitors to TheatreWorks Thursday evening production of “Big River,” a musical revival of the American classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” were greeted in the audience by signs bearing one of Twain’s many celebrated witticisms: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author.”
Despite performing in a relatively small space, the troupe made full use of the theater, sending Huck up and down the aisles to create a sense of long distances traveled, and using lights and opaque screens to mimic the changing weather. Not a moment wasted in the exhale of a scene change, the pacing swung naturally from song to strife as our protagonist found his way down the Mississippi. Twain’s favorite troublemaker eased seamlessly between addressing the audience, involving himself in the scene and belting the musical numbers for which the production is so well-known.
The central friendship of Huck Finn and his runaway slave companion, Jim, was made all the more tender by the finesse of the two main actors, the latter of whom, James Monroe Iglehart, just completed a three-year run on Broadway in the musical “Memphis.” Iglehart originated his “Memphis” role at TheatreWorks years ago and was proud to return to the Silicon Valley theater company that was a significant part of his earlier career. Alex Goley made his TheatreWorks debut as Huck himself, excited to reprise the role from his experiences during the summer at Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre.
What could inspire Stanford students to burst “the bubble” and come out to support the theater community of Palo Alto? Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin of the English Department (and director of American Studies) organized the outing as part of her fall quarter introductory seminar, Mark Twain and American Culture. One of many seminars designed to give freshmen the opportunity to explore a topic of interest with a distinguished professor, this class examines how the quintessentially American works of Mark Twain explore themes of race, technology, heredity versus environment, religion, education and what it means to be American, generating a diverse and curious group of students looking to connect to the cultural backdrop of the nation they are calling home for the next four years.
Whether audience members are coming out to analyze an interpretation of one of America’s favorite rabble-rousers or just for the charming, homey atmosphere of the theater and its participants, “Big River” is sure to wow Palo Alto in weeks to come.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that Professor Shelly Fisher Fishkin was of the American Studies Department; in fact, she is a professor in the English Department and director of American Studies. The Daily regrets the error.