Reviewed by Judy Richter
Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest novels in American literature, yet it also remains controversial, primarily because of its treatment of slavery and its use of the word "nigger." In adapting the novel for the stage, Scott Kaiser tries to get around this controversy by providing more historical context for the 1884 book. In "Splittin' the Raft," being given its world premiere by Marin Theatre Company, Kaiser adds a new character, Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an ardent, eloquent abolitionist through speeches and books. The actor who plays Jim, the runaway slave who shares Huck's adventures, also portrays Douglass, quoting from his 1855 autobiography, "My Bondage and My Freedom."
Hence, the play opens with Aldo Billingslea portraying Douglass and describing how Negro slavery worked in the United States. He then becomes Jim, but he steps back into Douglass' role and words throughout the play. It's an effective device that illustrates why Huck is so worried about being condemned to hell because he has been helping Jim. It also helps to explain why Jim is so excited about the chance to gain his freedom in Cairo, Ill., and so devastated when they unknowingly pass the town one night when a dense fog blankets the Mississippi.
Kaiser, who is the voice and text coach for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, also does some gender and racial bending with Stacy Ross, a white woman, playing Huck, and a white man (Mark Farrell) and a black woman (Karen Aldridge) playing all the other characters that Huck and Jim encounter on their raft trip. They do so with minimal costume changes (costumes by Todd Roehrman), using their considerable acting skills to differentiate characters. Lit by Chris Guptill, Kate Boyd's set is simple, suggesting a classroom with a turntable -- similar to the merry-go-round at a children's playground -- serving as the raft. In general, that device works, but director Danny Scheie has the actors moving it and going round on it so much that it can become distracting. Projections and sound by Erik Pearson often complement the action, but some of the projections seem superfluous.
The acting is excellent, especially by Billingslea and Ross. Billingslea easily slips between Jim's dialect and Douglass' polished delivery. Ross deftly portrays Huck's naivete, common sense and intelligence as well as his moral dilemmas. Farrell and Aldridge both are effective in their numerous roles, although Aldridge has a tendency toward shrillness when portraying some of the white women like Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally. Accompanied by pianist John Florencio, the actors also sing the spirituals that intersperse the action.
Although some judicious editing might still be in order when dealing with some incidents, such as the duke and dauphin humbugs, overall, Kaiser has successfully integrated the words of Twain and Douglass to illustrate the evils of slavery and to create an interesting play.