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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Scott Kaiser's Splittin' the Raft Puts a Different Spin on Huckleberry Finn

Also see Richard's reviews of Irving Berlin's White Christmas and Marius

The Marin Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of Scott Kaiser's Splittin' the Raft at their theatre in Mill Valley, running through December 11th. The story of Huck Finn has been presented in every medium. There have been many plays about the adventures of the country boy and Big Jim on the raft going north to Illinois during slavery days, including the musical Big River that is still playing in regional theatres. There was even a play staring Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster showing Huck and Tom Sawyer as adults.

Playwright Scott Kaiser presents a different view of the classic Mark Twain story which is set in the context of a classroom. It opens with the noted African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Aldo Billingslea) lecturing to three willing children (played by Stacy Ross, Karen Aldridge and Mark Farrell) about the evils of slavery. Stacy Ross morphs into a compelling Huckleberry Finn while Karen Aldridge and Mark Farrell amazingly play seventeen roles to present the adventures of Huck and Big Jim, who is played powerfully by Aldo Billingslea. There has been great controversy about Mark Twain's book. Many considered it "racist" and it was the fifth most frequently challenged book of the 1990s. Many have sought to have the book removed from libraries because of the liberal use of the "n" word (the "n" word is used quite a lot in this production). Mark Twain himself said that those attempting to find a moral in this book "will be banished."

Splittin' the Raft follows Mark Twain's book almost to a fault. Director Danny Scheie has attempted to cram every single episode or chapter into this two hour, thirty minute production. Kaiser's script should be considered a work in progress since he first started the project as a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival dramaturgical staff in 1998. It was originally a forty-minute play dramatizing a portion of the book with actors playing multiple roles for West Coast high schools in the fall of that year. In 1999 the play expanded into a full length staged reading with four actors covering key elements of the entire novel. A year later, Frederick Douglass was added to provide greater historical context and racial balance. The present revision gives greater meaning to the role of Douglass and to tell us about the terrible lives of the three million slaves who lived in the southern states before the Civil War. Douglass' didactics are sprinkled throughout the retelling of Huck and Big Jim's raft trip.

Mark Farrell and Karen Aldridge are amazing portraying many characters from Twain's tale. Farrell plays everyone from a bigoted white preacher who believes slavery is fine since it comes from the bible, to the cruel drunken father of Huck, to a comical aunt in drag, to a boyish Tom Sawyer. Karen Aldridge plays characters both male and female, such as the finicky Widow Douglas, the rowdily benevolent Aunt Sally and the con man Duke. Stacy Ross is superb as the country boy running away from his drunken pap. Huck and Jim's conversations are splendid as they discuss "important matters" sitting on the raft. There is a wonderful scene where Huck tries to tell Jim that citizens of France speak only French and not the "American" Jim speaks.

Aldo Billingslea's performance as Douglass and Big Jim is mesmerizing. He changes roles with astonishing speed, first speaking in the powerful theatrical voice of the abolitionist and quickly changing to Big Jim's uneducated voice. Many facts about slavery are presented to the audience from both Douglass and Big Jim with an outstanding scene in which Aldo talks about how the slaves were tied to trees and given twenty to forty lashes for mundane infractions of southern state laws. (On opening night that scene became too real after Aldo accidentally cut the heel of his left foot on part of a screen coming downstage to talk about the lashings. Blood from the heel started to drip on the floor while he gave a speech about how blood squirts from the back to the heel while the lashing was in progress.)

Splittin' the Raft could stand some further editing since the play goes on much too long. Some scenes like the con men scene played by Mark Farrell and Karen Aldridge seem to been thrown in for laughs. The last scene of the entrance of Tom Sawyer seems to be burlesque in nature. There is no examination of the people and ideas of why the south kept slaves. This is an exhausting production with the actors running for various costumes to put on for each character.

Playwright Kaiser and the inventive director Danny Scheie have added music to the complex production. Negro spirituals are sung by the cast with John Florencio accompanying them on the piano. He even tickles the ivories with bits and piece of modern day songs. In one scene I could detect he was playing a little of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music.

Kate Boyd has devised a striking set of towering open shelves that are stocked with books, globes and other items. There is an old fashioned schoolyard roundabout that revolves in the center of the stage serving as the raft. A large, three-panel screen serves is a background for film projections showing scenes from the MGM film The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with glimpses of Mickey Rooney playing Huck. The director also shows scenes from the television production with Eddie Hodges playing the country boy. These flash by very quickly. There are several small screens showing an interesting compilation of slides and graphics. An old fashioned blackboard is used occasionally to prove a point in this multimedia production.

Danny Scheie has devised an outstanding creative production using music, media screens and interesting didactics to create a timeless picture of slavery that is in its own way still going on in today's society. There is a very effective last scene in which a map of the United States is pulled down showing the "red" and "blue" states after the current presidential election.

Splittin' the Raft plays through December 11 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave in Mill Valley. For tickets please call 415-388-5208 or online at www.marintheatre.org.

The company's next production is the Off Broadway hit Killer Joe opening on January 12 and running through February 12th, 2006.


Photo: David Allen Studios


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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