Stupid Title, Damn Good Show
Book-It Takes on Huck Finn
We have to start with the title of the show. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored is a flat-out stupid name, and, depending on the motivations of Book-It Theater, it could be considered aggressively stupid. In order of offensiveness from most to least, those motivations could be:
1. Book-It believes that the censored version of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is widely accepted as the "regular" version of Huckleberry Finn, which makes an uncensored version noteworthy.
2. Book-It felt like it had to alert people to the presence of the word "nigger" in this play by passive-aggressively labeling it "uncensored" in the hopes of preemptively scaring off anyone who might be offended.
3. Book-It wanted to arouse the prurient interests of potential theatergoers by giving their play a name worthy of a porno (what's next from Book-It—This Ain't As I Lay Dying XXX?).
But here's the thing: When you label a book or a play "uncensored," you're actually scoring a point for the censors by normalizing censorship. You're making a lack of censorship into something extraordinary. And that's plain wrong: The uncensored text should always be considered the default position. Because fuck censorship. Fuck it right in its ugly fucking hemorrhoidal shithole.
Once you get past the title, Book-It's staging of Huckleberry Finn is actually pretty damn good. The beginning and the end of the play feel unfortunately rushed—Judd Parkin's adaptation style involves a whole lot of explaining and very little doing up until the point when Huck winds up on the raft, which gives the first and last 20 minutes a dense, expository feel. But when the motormouthed, CliffsNotes-in-costumes vibe finally ends and the road (river) trip begins, everything is smooth sailing.
The best parts of the play come when Huck and Jim are out on the raft, getting to know each other. Christopher Morson's Huck is an over-the-top ball of energy—he runs all over the place all the time, literally doing cartwheels—but when he slows down to talk, that jitteriness focuses into an eerie kind of concentration. And Geoffery Simmons's Jim has a gifted brain that's been left, unchallenged, to languish. The more his Jim sees and does with Huck on the river, the sharper and more defined a human being he becomes, mirroring the way that Twain seems to love Huck from the beginning and falls in love with Jim's character only during the course of the book.
The smart staging (by director Jane Jones and designer Andrea Bryn Bush) helps by making the raft the center of the action and by placing the raft on a central spring, so it drifts and tilts and spins and seems to float in the fog coming from the wings. In fact, "smart" is a word that comes to mind frequently during the play. Peter Jacobs is smartly funny as an array of side characters including a con man, Miss Watson, and an unfortunate pig. Evan Crockett and Hannah Nielsen's live scoring of the play consists of smart song choices employed at just the right points (except for the climactic "I'll Fly Away," which feels like an unfortunate O Brother, Where Art Thou? rip-off). Just about everything about Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored is smart, except for that stupid, stupid title choice.