A little of Twain's humor for the young

People's Light offers an enjoyable learning experience based on the humorist's lecture tours.

Posted: October 16, 2012

On the speaking circuit of 19th-century America, no one commanded greater audiences than Mark Twain. The author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer crisscrossed the country, reading his books to sold-out crowds.

Wendy Bable's Mark Twain: Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers builds on this. She sets her play in 1904, the self-proclaimed last lecture of Twain's first annual final farewell tour. This sets the tone for the evening: a bit whimsical, with a hint of Twain's sardonic, bubble-bursting humor.

The People's Light and Theatre Company production offers a bit of the same: an enjoyable and educational means to expose children (9 and up, at least) to reading and live performance.

Bable's play blends elements from both. While Twain (Tom Teti) begins reading, a pair of "advance men" (Chris Bresky and Akeem Davis) bring out a lectern, pitcher of water, and steamer trunk as the only set pieces on Jess Ford's vaudeville-era stage (adorned nicely with clamshell-covered footlights).

This trio reenacts some of Twain's most famous stories, including the whitewash episode that opens Sawyer, and the story of a betting man and a jumping frog that launched Twain's journalistic career.

Teti imbues Twain's wit with as much sparkle as his white-on-white suit, and presents him not so much as the nation's conscience but as an advocate for harmless mischief and free thinking, and a comedic crusader against Puritan morality. The antics of the advance men provide the bulk of the entertainment. Davis amuses as a revivalist preacher, with Bresky as a pianist adding maladroit musical selections to each enacted episode.

Hearing these stories reminds us how little has changed. Teenagers still attend church to be together in the dark, young boys embark on epic backyard adventures, and an entrepreneurial spirit like Twain can bounce among careers as a failed miner, steamboat captain, and publisher before finding the footing that brings him fame.

Bable adds one interlude of conscience that touches the controversy still surrounding Twain's books. It obtrudes on the spirit of fun, but also adds a "teachable moment" (to borrow a noxious phrase Twain no doubt would have despised), enabling parents to steer the conversation during the after-show drive home from "What's a steamboat?" to a more enlightening "Why wouldn't they say that word?"

And isn't that what Twain's books and modern theater should prompt, anyway?


Mark Twain: Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers

Through Nov. 4 at People's Light and Theatre Company, 29 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $25-$40. 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org

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