By Ande Jacobson
What could be better than a new adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to continue Pear Avenue Theatre’s Americana celebration? Twain, published his work in 1889. The book is as much a commentary on his current society as it is a work of science fiction given its time-travel bent.
Twain’s novel covers events thirteen centuries apart, starting in the present, 1879, and traveling back to sixth century England where the bulk of the action takes place. Written in narrative form, first from an unnamed, Twain-like character’s perspective, then from the stranger’s, henceforth known as The Yankee, who “Twain” first encounters at Warwick Castle and later at the nearby Inn where they both are resident. All other characters in Twain’s novel are figures from The Yankee’s tale.
Directed by Rebecca Ennals, and co-adapted by Diane Tasca and Ennals, this seventh of eight productions this season is written to keep the flavor, flow, and humor of Twain’s work alive, while adding a few present day characters associated with the Inn. Tasca and Ennals use artful summary transitions in the action to reduce Twain’s story from the 20+ hours it would take to relate in its entirety and fit it neatly into a 2 hour and 30 minute performance.
Set designers Michal Gavish and Norm Beamer have created a single two-story set, ostensibly an Inn, with the entire floor of the theatre painted to resemble flagstone, and a functional staircase adding real estate to the intimate space allowing full-on chases to ensue.
Michael Sokolsky’s lighting design adds nicely to the theatrical experience by creating the effects of night and day, lightning, an eclipse, and explosions in various colors.
Ennals’ sound design is clean and sound effects are well executed, though it might have been nice to include a few brass fanfares in places, rather than using the makeshift megaphone on stage.
Seven veteran actors comprise the cast, some familiar to The Pear, some recent transplants. Cast members include Michael Bates (Twain/Clarence/et al), Steven Salzman (Innkeeper/Merlin/et al), Troy Johnson (The Yankee), Lance Fuller (Clerk/King Arthur/et al), Becky M. Kemper (Innkeeper’s Wife/Morgan le Fay/et al), Dekyi Ronge’ (Innkeeper’s Daugher/Sandy/et al), and Matt Lai (Stable Hand/Sir Lancelot/et al).
The cast is tight, and the quick character changes are convincing with most using only minor costume modifications or employing physical changes in posture or vocal tone. Some costumes and props convey comic flair, e.g. utilizing kitchen gadgets such as an angel food cake pan, bread basket, and steamer basket as helmets for the Knights.
The play begins as the audience enters. The actors mingle around the Inn, talking with one another, and with members of the audience, both in character, and also as themselves. Salzman rings a bell to call the house to order, and while the audience doesn’t realize it, he’s already transitioned into his initial character as Innkeeper, as he provides a few welcome words and shows Twain into his establishment. From there, the narration begins.
The Yankee, Clarence as Yankee stand-in near the tale’s end, and Twain, all speak in first person as they tell the story, the remaining characters use third person in their narrative exposition adding an “old world” flavor to their tale. Some of the dialog sequences fluctuate seamlessly between third person and direct “in-character” discourse. A curious point is the inclusion of slang from Twain’s original text, some of which sounds rather current to the 21st century ear with terms such as “hang out”.
As Bates’ Twain begins retelling the story, others in the cast join in. Johnson as The Yankee enters, and as he tells Twain how he landed in the 6th century following a fight, he acts it out with Lai first fighting him in the present. Bates then becomes Clarence (in third person at this point) in the sixth century when The Yankee awakens and Clarence leads him to King Arthur’s court in Camelot.
Johnson is believable, often breaking the fourth wall talking directly to the audience as The Yankee simultaneously realizes the magnitude of his plight, as well as the possibility that it is merely a hallucination. He is likable in his depiction though just a tad arrogant as he uses his superior knowledge of “past” events to his advantage. Although he only plays one part, Johnson carries much of the story on his shoulders, and while he stumbles on a few lines at times, his easy manner and convincing delivery cover well.
Fuller’s Arthur is endearing and is clearly naïve to the world outside his royal existence. The Yankee opens Arthur’s eyes as they travel the country together. Fuller’s physical comedy works well in this role, and he too plays with the audience at times.
Salzman’s Merlin is the villain of the piece, jealous of The Yankee’s status in the kingdom. Salzman pulls off several disguises and Merlin’s malevolent undertone well, though at times, his character transitions are a bit awkward.
The two women of the cast are very versatile. Ronge’ is the love interest, Sandy, the woman The Yankee marries in the 6th century. She’s convincing, though initially, Sandy is a bit tedious. Kemper changes mood and character nicely, and as Morgan le Fay, she’s vicious.
Many of the cast members cross gender lines in some of their characterizations, such as Salzman’s depiction of one of the imprisoned princesses from afar, and Kemper and Ronge’ becoming Knights of the Table Round for a scene. A subset of cast members also at times credibly become various animals such as hogs, rabbits, and in one scene, rats.
In large part, the action is rapid fire. The smallpox shack scene; however, doesn’t quite work. Solely rooted in the 6th century, and providing a plot point crucial for Arthur’s character development, the scene is a bit too long and pensive. Kemper is serious having just lost the bulk of her family, but she falters slightly in her delivery, causing the scene to waver.
The subsequent battle is creatively staged utilizing a mix of real life action and chessmen. It would give far too much of the ending away to go any further at this point.
Patricia Tyler’s costume design captures the flavor of the nineteenth century well, while some of the medieval pieces require a bit more imagination on the part of the audience. The Yankee’s “armor” is humorous, and the scene “dressing” him for his journey to find the imprisoned princesses is a particularly nice bit, although some of the Velcro isn’t quite up to the challenge to hold tight through the scene.
Though more prop than costume, the on-stage suit of armor is a nice touch, and Lai brings it to life in battle.
An enjoyable journey well worth taking, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court continues with performances Thursdays through Sundays through 29 May at the Pear Avenue Theatre located at: 1220 Pear Avenue, Unit K, Mountain View, CA 94043. See http://www.thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.
Note: The Pear’s intimate 39 seat house has open seating, and the doors open 20 minutes before curtain.
(Photo credit: Lance Fuller)