If you enjoy shows that make you jump out of your seat, then you should have been at Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza! on Friday night: it featured both an extravaganza and an evacuation.
About twenty minutes after the performance began, lights starting flashing and alarms sounded in the 4th floor venue of Studio Theatre. Out on 14th street, we saw fire engines pulling up to the building. No one was hurt but apparently smoke from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” triggered the evacuation. Soon after the situation was assessed we (audience members) were given a choice: to go back in and resume the show (missing about 5 minutes) or exchange our ticket for another day when Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza! would be performed.
It looked like nearly the entire audience reentered, and the show picked up where we left off. Mark Twain (played by the insanely talented David Lloyd Olson) quizzed us on what had just happened before we exited (Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep, then woke up…) and soon we were into “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
You may be wondering how these characters and tales, developed by Washington Irving ,ended up in a show called Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza!. This is the brilliance of Pointless Theatre: they are artists who creatively reconfigure classic stories. After I saw their version of The Sleeping Beauty at the Fringe festival in 2010, I knew I had to see anything they produced.
This show took three years to make, and Pointless’s artistic directors Patti Kalil and Matt Reckeweg state in the program that their concept was to re-imagine “how Vaudevillian artists of the late 19th century would have presented classic tall tales such as Johnny Appleseed.”
Like other Pointless productions this one appeals to multiple generations, from very young to older theatergoers, and the small stage of the 4th floor theatre turns the event into an even more charming and intimate affair.
The cast exudes an inimitable likability. Several performers also appeared in The Sleeping Beauty – like Olson and Frank Cervarich – and many people involved in the Extravaganza! creative team have also been part of other Pointless projects. The outfits by Frank Labovitz (who did The Sleeping Beauty costumes) are terrific, especially the hat and skirt for the “Cotton Queen” (played by Rebecca Ballinger, who handled her costume malfunction with grace and humor).
The tenacity of the group, the commitment they have to collaborating and producing shows together, is palpable when they perform. The actors are not only fiercely creative and fun, but this show functions on multiple levels, both reviving and commenting on iconic figures in American cultures. Even during the evacuation, actors maintained their characters’ distinct voices and ideas, singing patriotic songs as we exited (to the annoyance of Studio staff trying to maintain a sense of calm and order).
Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza!
by John Hamilton
at Studio Theatre – Stage 4
1501 14th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20005
Details and tickets
What distinguishes this production from other Pointless events is the fusion of content and form, meaning each iconic character is depicted through a unique puppetry and performance style. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is told through shadow puppetry. Johnny Appleseed (played by the stellar Zachary Latta) displays a goofy kind of cartoonish demeanor and the set pieces (mostly apple trees) are two-dimensional objects.
In the scene featuring Tim German as John Henry, he battles a multi-actor-steam-machine-puppet that makes me think of machine dances by Nikolai Foregger during the 1920s. German’s prowess as an artist is phenomenal: as a triple threat he can act, sing, and dance. When he battles the steam machine with his tap dancing skills it creates an eloquent man-versus-technology moment.
As scintillating as each scene is individually, it’s John Hamilton’s work as the playwright and Kalil and Reckeweg’s mastery of puppets and performance that make this show so wonderful. Clever one-liners fly by so quickly I’m sure I missed some, but I loved the one by Benjamin Franklin about setting up a post office to get the Declaration of Independence to Britain more quickly.
As a whole, the show refreshes and challenges concepts of myth and history, allowing audiences to see these heroes in a different light, or how any hero is constructed. A great question is posed by one actor: “Who cares if these stories are real or not: they highlight the true spirit of Americans!”
The performers bring to the stage a perfect blend of exuberance and curiosity, as skillful with planned scenes as they are with improvising. Pointless Theatre is an extraordinary troupe that excels in exploring a wide range of topics and appealing to a spectrum of theatergoers. It would be fantastic to make “Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza!” required viewing for all American literature and history students.