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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Larry Howe <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 18 Aug 2005 08:50:08 -0500
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List members in the midwest--

I had the pleasure of attending a performance of "The $30,000 Bequest" on Saturday at the New American Theatre in Rockford, IL.  The run will include at least one more weekend of performances, and I highly recommend it to anyone within a few hours of Rockford. 

This production is adapted and directed by Alexander Gelman of the Northern Illinois University School of Theatre and Dance.  What's most remarkable about the adaptation is its steadfast reliability to Twain's text--not one word has been changed.  This very intelligent decision is akin to Kenneth Brannaugh's Oscar nominated "adapted" screenplay of Shakespeare's Hamlet, but where Brannaugh was working already within a dramatic medium, Gelman exhibits a rare theatrical vision in moving from one narrative medium to another without violating the original in the slightest.  In other words, rather than take a narrative and convert it to the conventions of theatrical performance, Gelman decided to adapt theatrical performance to the demands of the text: the three characters speak dialogue and all of the narration, making the performance a kind of theatrical reading of Twain's work.  That doesn't mean that it's short on theatricality either.  The space, a turn of the century parlor functions as the set of a drawing room farce, and the production augments the movements and language of the actors with some well chosen musical accompaniment fitting the period and the moods of the piece.  Josh Anderson and Jessica Sanford-Hudspeth turn in very sensitive performances as Sally and Aleck, whose imaginary speculations with an inheritance from a misanthropic distant relative are the central action of the piece; and Joel Stanley Huff (Tilbury) provides a lot of comic relief to and moral critique of the the avaricious desires of the speculating couple.  The performance shows how much Twain's own concerns about the capitalism of his day prove to be cautionary wisdom still. 

One is tempted to wonder what might have resulted if Twain's own failed attempts to adapt his work for the stage had taken Gelman's tack.  I have no idea if this would have worked for late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century audiences, but it works very well for a twentieth-century audience, precisely because it maintains the integrity of the original text.  The result is a kind of experimental theatre, but unlike so much experimental performance art that is too enamored of its own devices, Gelman's "$30,000 Bequest" has a reach fully aware of and entirely consistent with its grasp.  

Gelman will become the aristic director of Chicago's Organic Theatre Company next year, and hopes to mount a production of "$30,000 Bequest" that may also tour some of the well appointed venues of the northern Illinois region, so if you miss it this time, look for it again.  

Larry Howe