HUDSON – It’s Mark Twain’s classic tale of racism and regionalism, of friendship and fantastic travels down the Mississippi River.
The Great Lakes Theater took both children and adults down that imaginary river raft with Huck and Jim March 1, entertaining more than 100 guests at the Hudson Library and Historical Society with a unique adaptation of “Huckleberry Finn,” written by Eric Schmiedl for its “Classics On Tour” productions.
David Hansen, education outreach for Great Lakes Theater, said this was the second year of Classics On Tour with programs for school children. As Huck and Jim are both runaways, they encounter a number of characters with lessons that demonstrate growth in a valuable way.
“Huck is without a father and Jim fills that role,” Hansen said. “[Jim] is patient and imparts wisdom, but he left his wife and children behind, and he's anxious about that decision.”
Chelsea Cannon, an adult actress with the theater company, portrays Huck with the exuberance and energy typical of the iconic 11-year-old boy.
Chennelle Bryant-Harris plays Jim, whose rapid fire dialogue with Huck comes naturally — the two actresses said they were best friends before taking the stage together.
Cannon has worked as an actor-teacher for three years with Great Lakes Theater, earning a bachelor's degree in theater performance at Ohio University. She has worked as a professional Cleveland actor for five years.
Bryant-Harris is an actor, director and teaching artist who earned a bachelor's degree in history and theater arts from Gettysburg College.
The two women were busy during the performance, as this adaptation had them playing all the characters, seeming to switch costumes effortlessly. As such, the layers were multiple and complex in one scene, as Cannon — a woman playing a boy — has to pretend to be a boy being a girl. The audience enjoyed Huck's falsetto and embarrassment of wearing the dress and bonnet.
In another scene, the adaption shows Huck running away from home after his drunken father attacks him. On Jackson Island he meets Jim, a slave to Mrs. Watson, who talked about selling Jim for $800.
As the story goes, Huck fakes his own death, but the murder is blamed on Jim, and the two set out on a raft down river to Cairo where they hope to take a steamboat north. Huck, of course, finds his loyalty and friendship with Jim tested when he meets a group of men searching for Jim.
After Jim is taken by a rich family, Huck realizes what is precious to him – his friendship with Jim — and learns to do the right thing.
After the play, the actors talked with the audience.
Some of the children in attendance said liked the sound effects created by James Alexander Rankin. Others said they were able to imagine the story even though the stage offered a minimalist setting, stark with boxes, cabinets and hanging backdrops to create the illusion of the river or a camp on land.
“[The children] were very attentive and respective with great questions,” Hansen said. “It's a fun show and shares some important life lessons.”
Both Rankin and Schmiedl, who graduated from Kent State University and the University of Hawaii, provided music with period songs and a few extra characters when needed.
Schmiedle said the idea of two women portraying Huck and Jim was initially met with resistance, but theater requires the audience to use its imagination and by stepping out of what is expected, the audience sees the story in a new way.
Funding for the Classics on Tour is provided by the GAR Foundation, First Energy Foundation and the NORD Family Foundation and allowed them to perform the show at eight Akron Public Schools.
The shows run 50 minutes, a normal class period, and an educator study guide with historical context, synopsis, classroom activities and additional resources is available online.
The Huck Finn tour ends March 9. Next year, Classics On Tour will perform an adaption of “Treasure Island.”
More information is available at www.greatlakestheater.rog/education/classics-on-tour or contact David Hansen at 216-453-4444 or email@example.com.
Reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or firstname.lastname@example.org