First Stage has turned a great American novel into a compelling all-ages play.
First Stage’s performance of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” drives home some of the story’s greatest contrasts and ironies. First, for Jim the escaped slave looking to find freedom, he has to go even further south. The Mississippi River (where much of the book and musical are set) represents freedom but not safety, and to depict the water, a squad of nine theater students dances and flows around the “raft,” a movable stage-within-a-stage.
The watercraft, of course, is a small place and forces Huck (played by 18-year-olds Ben Kindler and Luke Brotherhood, depending on the night) into close quarters with Jim, where he learns how to relate to him respectfully by trial and error. Huck must also find his own vision of right and wrong by deciding to treat Jim like a person, something he fails at when he pretends to be a slave hunter as a prank.
DiMonte Henning – a Milwaukee native, veteran of First Stage, and producing artistic director of the arts organization Lights! Camera! Soul! – plays Jim and brings gravity to the role and a powerful voice. The show is as much about him as it is Huck, who is often played for laughs.
Seeing the story played out on stage makes it all the more obvious that the central white characters are blessed with almost boundless flexibility of identity while Jim is shackled (sometimes literally) to who he is and the social and legal structures around him. The entire musical follows the ebbs and flows of his fortune while Huck and two major white characters, vagabonds known as the Duke and the King, run about hatching schemes and, in Huck’s case, struggling with his conscience.
This shape-shifting power is represented early on when Huck pretends to be a slave hunter, and when Huck pretends that a blanket-wrapped Jim is a white man sick with smallpox. For a brief moment, Jim’s identity is changed.
The King and the Duke are always morphing as they embark on new “projects,” aka scams. Midway through the show, a regally dressed King pretends to be the English relative of a dead man and so the inheritor of his estate. All it takes is a goofy accent and some clothes, and wealth rains down.
The music – performed by a small ensemble playing stringed instruments and a piano – is bright and on-point in the smaller Todd Wehr Theater, which seats about 500, and the set is a mixture of wooden structures and a jagged Mississippi River map painted across the floors and walls. According to director Marti Gobel, “If we can see the story of Huck and Jim as the deeply spiritual tale it is, then our theater becomes what theaters once were: a temple of sorts in which the dimming of the lights prepares us to join these actors, invoking the divine as they embark on a storytelling journey toward our collective enlightenment.”
Like other First Stage shows, this one incorporates a mixture of young and adult actors, and when it works well, as it generally does with “Big River,” the generations play off each other in a unique way. Huck is Huck, and the King and the Duke (Matt Daniels and Chris Klopatek) are dangerous old men full of guile and an interesting degree of self-awareness.
Big River runs through April 14, and tickets are reasonably priced.