Tales by Twain Charming But Slight


Tales by Twain was written by Gayle Stahlhuth, the artistic director of the East Lynn Theater Company in Cape May. Although the show played from October 1 to October 11 at East Lynn the Surflight is billing its run as a world premiere. That's understandable though because the play is a co-production of the two companies. Stahlhuth and Surflight artistic director Steve Steiner hatched the idea for the play when Stahlhuth hitched a ride back from a meeting of the New Jersey Theater Alliance with Steiner.

Stahlhuth also stars in the play, along with Damon Bonetti, Sarah Johnson and Erik Schark. Did I call it a play? Surflight calls it a "play with music" but it's more of a... a... I don't know what it is. It's a series of vignettes based on Twain's works with some singing and dancing to contemporaneous songs by Steven Foster and the like.

The play opens with a what I guess is the Tales by Twain theme song, sung by the cast as they accompany themselves with musical instruments. It's a folky kind of introduction to Twain, followed by the cast reciting some of Twain's memorable quotes like "It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." I began to feel a little uneasy. Between the singing and playing and the cast earnestly staring out just above the audience's line of sight it felt a lot like a school assembly program.

Fortunately, the feeling didn't last too long. The first major bit was based on Twain's short story, The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton. It's boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl story largely conducted via transcontinental telephone. I was completely unfamiliar with the tale as I was with every other story Stahlhuth has plumbed for inspiration, except for The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Tom Sawyer. After the play I read the program (I never read them beforehand) and got my bearings. I hadn't realized how little of Twain's works I knew. There's his Personal Recollection of Joan of Arc, A Complaint About Correspondence and his Diaries of Adam and Eve, among others.

The cast is talented and likable. When Erik Schark as Tom Sawyer kisses Sarah Johnson as Becky Thatcher he actually blushed. I've never seen an actor pull that off before. Johnson is pretty although her teeth are frighteningly perfect. She was a convincing Joan of Arc too. Damon Bonetti shows his versatility as everything from a riverboat captain to Adam to a scheming Parisian painter. Stahlhuth was obviously enjoying bringing her brainchild to an audience.

I'm trying to think of more to say but this one just didn't make a strong enough impression on me. I didn't dislike it but the most enthusiasm I can muster for it is to say that it was pleasant. Whether a merely pleasant play is worth $50 for a couple of tickets is an exercise I leave to the reader.

Evenng performances October 15 (Wednesday)-October 18(Saturday) 2003 at 8:00 pm ; October 16 & 19 (Thurs & Sun) at 2:00 pm