Riff Raft

Alright, two cheers: One for the Mark Taper Forum finally putting a local stage troupe (Deaf West Theater) in one of its regular mainstage slots. And one for Deaf West Theater, comprised largely of hearing-impaired actors, pulling off its second Broadway musical in three years. The company staged Oliver! in its North Hollywood space in 2000, where Roger Miller and William Hauptman‘s Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appeared last year.

How do they do it? Some of the actors sign their roles, while hearing actors stand nearby speaking and crooning on their behalf. Others principles speak, sing and sign at the same time.

At intermission of Big River, last week at the Taper, one woman gushed, ”At last, something at the Taper with heart.“ Other adjectives overheard that night included uplifting, inspiring, and the compound compliment really something. The ovation for Deaf West Theater after the show was (forgive me) deafening. These are qualifying remarks to establish that many, many, many people loved this show. I didn’t.

Critiquing it feels like kicking a hearing-impaired puppy that‘s been plonked into the limelight. The New York Times reports that the producers have set their sights on New York, which makes one wonder whether all the buzz and cheers are as much about a sentimental Broadway dream-in-the-making as they are about the spectacle itself.

For instance, Troy Kotsur and Lyle Kanouse double as Huck’s foul, inebriated pa. We first see them on opposite sides of a looking glass. Then they walk side by side wearing identical frayed hats, clothes and beards. One chugs from a jar, the other wipes his own lips with his sleeve -- a mildly witty piece of stage business that‘s met with such a roar of approval, you’d think we were watching the birth of slapstick itself.

Earlier this year, when a local company, the Fabulous Monsters, sent its production of Speed-Hedda! to NYC, Brian Parks of The Village Voice speculated cynically that ”maybe the dominance of the film and TV industries [in Los Angeles] leads theater audiences to overprize their marginalized art form. Perhaps the L.A. scene is just your basic small pond, where any half-decent play achieves an inflated reputation.“

Them‘s fightin’ words, but the Taper audience‘s reaction to Big River gives those words credence. In one scene, Huck (Tyrone Giordano) and Slave Jim (Rufus Bonds Jr.) stand with a pole on their river raft -- a small, rectangular platform in the middle of Ray Klausen’s planked set, with illustrated pages from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn pinned and suspended at sundry angles all over the place. Suddenly, screens behind and above our floating heroes open like wings to the sounds of an acoustical guitar riff, revealing an enlarging patch of blue, and creating the illusion of motion -- a nice, modest effect that elicits gasps, cheers and rapturous applause. Even our esteemed paper of record remarks that Twain would have had a lump in his throat at the sight. Oh, come on. Just read the man‘s work.

The heart and uplift that people seem so smitten with -- so desperate for in an age that contains neither -- represent a dousing of the source material’s wry and even toxic wit that caused it to be banned in Boston and Denver shortly after its publication. It was banned not because of its heart, or its capacity to inspire and uplift. It was banned by people (admittedly with such moral rectitude they might well have had corncobs lodged in their bowels) who nonetheless recognized a certain twang of nastiness to Twain‘s satire. What I’d give for some of that nastiness here.

In the book, when Huck slaughters a hog in order to fake his own death, it‘s a grimy botch job, a scene that became the source of schoolchildren’s perverse delight for generations to come. In Jeff Calhoun‘s direction, however, the Hog -- a hand puppet that resembles Miss Piggy -- is costumed (by David R. Zyla) just like Huck in a striped and checkered vaudeville outfit. In the hog’s death throes, a big red ribbon streams from the puppet‘s throat, as Huck smiles sweetly, as he does through two-thirds of this production. In fact, Calhoun’s staging is veritably baptized in holy waters of such emotional simplicity and innocence, such heart and uplift, it would surely have pleased the book banners of last century.

Giordano‘s hearing-impaired Huck employs mostly two facial expressions -- that endearing, toothy grin to show delight, and a wrinkled brow and pursed lips to depict emotional distress. For anyone interested in cross-hatched textures, this makes for a long show.

When hearing-impaired Phyllis Frelich (who is also in this ensemble) signed her way through the role of Scrooge in Deaf West’s production of A Christmas Carol several years ago, her face was an open book of variegated, haunting emotions. Of course it‘s in the nature of musicals that songs and choreography pick up where theatrical nuance leaves off. But Miller’s 20 ditties actually consist of about four melodies -- pop, gospel, a hymn and one for comedic patter -- used to dash any potential for counterpoint to a story already being told with crushing obviousness. This, despite the richly ambient voices of Bonds Jr., Scott Waara (as narrator Twain and Huck‘s voice), Gwen Stewart, and Steven Landau’s fine musical direction of the banjo-laced onstage band.

Early on, Huck sings ”Waitin‘ for the Light To Shine,“ (a ballad spun from ”This Little Light of Mine“ made famous by Paul Robeson) that suggests Huck is cognizant that he’s going to learn a lesson from his odyssey at the outset. Oh, really? What kid runs away from home knowing that? Certainly not Twain‘s.

In another scene, black servant Alice (Stewart) clutches her daughter (Michelle A. Banks) as two white, con-artist slave traders wrench them apart to sell the child down the river. Yet the harrowing emotion of that sight isn’t enough for Calhoun. As the traders haul the girl across the stage, one of them lets out a sadistic cackle as Alice swoons. The only thing missing is the twiddling of a mustache.

Signing is language that literalizes through hand gesture. This is because, when urgent messages need to be sent, the artistry of the broadcast is not a priority. Signing is not about double meanings, it‘s about getting the point. The cumulative effect, in this production at least, is that the point is gotten, and gotten and gotten again -- through gesture and context and music, all flowing in the same sweet and sentimental direction.

An uncredited 1885 review of Twain’s story in The Saturday Review notes that ”In no other book has the humorist shown so much artistic restraint, for there is in Huckleberry Finn no mere ‘comic copy,’ no straining after effect.“ A theatrical adaptation need not mimic its source, but here, the ”straining after effect“ is crippling.

BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINNBy ROGER MILLER AND WILLIAM HAUPTMAN, based on the book by MARK TWAIN | Directed and choreographed by JEFF CALHOUN | Presented by DEAF WEST THEATER COMPANY at the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through December 29

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