Three years ago, the Pear Avenue Theatre's Diane Tasca and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's Rebecca J. Ennals collaborated on a dramatization of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. In Northanger, the device was to let the characters in Austen's spoof of gothic novels both narrate the story and deliver their lines. Tasca's editing of Austen's text was as crisp as Ennals's directing, and the whole thing just flew by in a delightful spray of words and dance.
Now the pair has teamed up to bring Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, through May 29, 2011, at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View, to the stage. Yankee sticks to the same format as Northanger, although the dancing has been replaced by some pantomime jousting and minor sword play, and there's less actual dialogue.
But the absence of choreography and delivered lines is not why the formula fails this time around. Nor is the problem the production itself, which makes the most of the small space's narrowness and verticality. No, the trouble is Twain. Unlike Austen, whose novels were comparatively tight and focused, Twain tended to ramble, as anyone who suffered through his recently published autobiography knows all too well.
In particular, Twain's Yankee was a preachy mess. Sure Austen novels could be moon-eyed and sentimental, but they didn't want for drama. Yankee is virtually devoid of this essential theatrical ingredient, its humor is tiresomely smug and, when it comes to shark-jumping, it has no equal -- our narrator, the Yankee, MacGyvers his way out of a predicament early in the tale because he just so happens to be a student of Middle Ages solar eclipses. Even the hero's hubris, which is supposed to humanize him by giving him a great big juicy fault, feels heavy-handed. Why would anyone want to dramatize this train wreck in the first place?
Well, probably because there's something irresistible about a late 19th-century arms manufacturer let loose among the ill-educated rabble of the 6th, which is the book's main plot. Yankee's got time travel, absurdist humor and lots of gleeful jabs at organized religion. It's also a timely reminder, in our politically polarized age, that one's country, as defined by the common purpose and equality of its people, is a good deal more important than its institutions.
Sounds like a good jumping-off-point for a play to me. Instead, by sticking to the Northanger formula, the novel's nihilism leaves Tasca and Ennals with little room to work. For example, Twain's Yankee tries to use his privileged position as the only man in the 6th century with knowledge of the 19th to bring light to a dark world, but the institutions that perpetrate superstition and blind obedience (Twain is particularly harsh with the Catholic church) have stacked the deck against him. As for the people the Yankee would presume to ennoble, they are too dim-witted to seize the opportunity laid before them. Theirs is a world of poor hygiene and utter hopelessness, where all choices are bad and people literally cannot tell virtuous maidens from swine.
The actors do their best to bring this orgy of despair to life, with Troy Johnson as the Yankee, Lance Fuller as King Arthur and Becky M. Kemper as Morgan le Fay (among other roles) doing especially good jobs. But their efforts cannot change the fact that they are being asked to compress one of Twain's most notoriously wandering rants into roughly two and a half hours of something that resembles, but is not quite, theater.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court runs through May 29, 2011 at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View. For tickets and information, visit thepear.org.