BWW Review: THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

A Cincinnati theater known for its excellent production of Shakespeare plays continues to broadens its scope and include plays designed to attract a wider audience.

From November 17 to December 9, 2017, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company presents THE ADVENTURES OF Tom Sawyer adapted by Laura Eason from the novel by Mark Twain. Just in time for the holiday season, director Sara Clark said CSC wanted to branch out in the community to attract more families and children. While it can be challenging with adults playing children, she noted that Cary Davenport as Tom brings authenticity to the role. There is never a doubt in the viewer's mind that Cary is, indeed, Tom Sawyer. Davenport said, "It really perfectly captures the coming-of-age legend, especially for young boys."

This production in the new Otto M. Budig Theater succeeds in many ways despite a few pitfalls. Clark said that it is the first Twain adaptation that the company has staged. She found it challenging to cast adults adept at playing children. Davenport, a fifth year ensemble member, plays Tom Sawyer with verve and conviction. Often cavorting around the stage, Davenport finds his niche with this role where he gets to be a boisterous boy dealing with girlfriend Becky played by Caitlin McWethy, school issues and a witness to the murder of Doc Robinson. It is life in the small town of St. Petersburg, Missouri.

Dressed in appropriate garb of the 19th century designed by Denise Vulhop Watkins, the actors used all the entrances, aisles and exits to the theater-in-the-round created with a reference to the Globe Theater in London. Becky is costumed with multiple layers including an apron and flounced skirt. Aunt Polly has wire rim glasses and a matronly outfit. Watkins gave certain actors a unique, country look with hats, vests, and baggy, patched pants. There is even a clothesline with white bloomers in the background of one home scene.

Backed by a screen that changed colors amidst grass, the stage had a number of trap doors that the actors cleverly opened to bring up tables or tombstones for the graveyard scene. One even had water where Tom's boyhood friend Huckleberry Finn went fishing. Scenic designer Shannon Robert used relatively simple props, such as a modern tree. Rather than the electronic tablets used by many people these days, the young actors worked on slate ones, true to a 19th century school.

Lighting designer Justen N. Locke not only backlit the stage, but also had lights shining from underneath the thrust stage. The latter was an effective addition to the play. There was a large sound mid-play, perhaps a storm, but it was jarring and seemed unnecessary and too long. Audience members sit only six rows from the stage so sightlines are clear.

Some of the actors Clark directed are younger in their career; others such as Miranda McGee as Aunt Polly have more experience on stage. In his CSC and Cincinnati debut, Christopher Jordan Salazar gave a strong performance as Injun Joe/strict schoolmaster Dobins and the minister, somewhat resembling Rev. Billy Graham. He changed wigs and costumes easily to fit his characters. Huck Finn played by Kyle Bromley is actually related to Samuel Clemens, Twain's real name. Bromley said, "Tom Sawyer will always resonate with children."

The actors worked hard to create the memory of being young. There was fishing, juggling, tap dancing, playing on the harmonica, goofing off in school and playing hookey. Tom's punishment was to whitewash a fence, which he did. But, he also witnessed to Doc Robinson's murder.

Justin McCombs, prosecution lawyer and an ensemble member for twelve years, has developed into a fine actor bringing depth to his roles, whether they be comedic or dramatic. McCombs talks about the play as storyteller based. "We present as storytellers. I adopt the character," he said. "I grew up an hour away from Hannibal, Missouri where Twain lived. The first trip I took was to the cave." He said actor McGee brought theater games to the set. Director Clark gave the actors a chance to include their own interpretations of boyhood games so they had a hand in play design.

Twain said, "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everyone drinks water.' It is an accessible and friendly play for everyone. Twain is a popular author, and the story one that a lot of people have read and recognize. In addition to being a writer, he was a humorist, publisher and entrepreneur. He worked as a journalist before he turned to works of fiction that made him successful.

The Otto M. Budig Theater is located at 1195 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine, across from Washington Park. It recently opened as a completely new arts venue. Valet parking for those who make reservations in advance are $10; the night of the performance, the rate is $15, as is several parking lots near the theater. This reviewer found the parking charges high. There is street parking available if you can get downtown well before curtain time.

Upcoming CSC shows Include:

Every Christmas Ever Told - December 21 - 31, 2017. All tickets for this performance are only $38.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - January 16 - February 17

Othello - March 2 - 24

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - April 6 - 28

Noises Off - May 18 - June 9

Opening night featured a performance by the band Jake Speed and the Freddies. Although the band is well-known in Cincinnati, the music didn't add much to the audience experience, in my view.

A quote attributed to Twain was "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati. It is always ten years behind the rest of the world." Although not confirmed, Twain did spend some time in the Queen City as Samuel Clemens who worked as a typesetter at Thomas Wrightson Printing Company, located on Walnut St. in the area now known as The Banks.

THE ADVENTURES OF Tom Sawyer as a play was originally commissioned by and received its world premiere at Hartford Stage in 2010. Although Twain experienced sadness, tragedy and heartbreak in childhood, he chose to remember the more positive side of his life with his book.

If you want a family friendly event for the holidays, don't miss THE ADVENTURES OF Tom Sawyer.

Performances are Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

1195 Elm St.

Cincinnati, OH 45202

For more information, contact the box office at (513) 381-2273 or visit the website www.cincyshakes.com. @cincyshakes

Photograph: Mikki Schaffner

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