Thursday, October 16, 2003

Hack is not a four-letter word. Okay, it is

I can't think of a good reason not to, so I'm going to start posting the stuff I write for Isthmus newspaper, which doesn't put most of its stuff on the web. Here's a theater review and some short movie reviews I wrote for the edition (October 17, 2003) hitting the streets today. You may notice here and again that I review your Z-grade flicks.


Toned-down Twain
Big River takes the edge off Huckleberry Finn [p.24]

By Kenneth Burns

It is the nastiest joke in a nasty novel, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck tells Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally about a steamboat accident, and she asks, "Good gracious! anybody hurt?" Huck responds, "No'm. Killed a nigger." Sally replies, "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."

So you could expect to brace yourself when the moment arrives in Madison Family Theatre Company's production of Big River, the 1985 Broadway musical based on Huckleberry Finn. After all, no one likes to hear the n-word. But here is how Madison Family Theatre Company renders the exchange (which William Hauptman's book for some reason shifts to Huckleberry Finn and Tom's Uncle Silas):

Silas: Anybody hurt?
Huck: No, sir.
Silas: Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.

Artistic director Nancy Thurow cuts the word nigger here and elsewhere, even though it appears in Hauptman's book. This might unsettle anyone who admires Huckleberry Finn and loathes the fact that it is, according to the American Library Association, the fifth most censored book of the last decade. Madison Family Theatre Company seems not to trust that audiences can correctly process a word that Twain, no slouch when it came to esthetics, employed deliberately.

Perhaps this is being excessively touchy. Certainly the word nigger may be inappropriate for children, and this is a family production. Yet the show preserves, thankfully, much about the novel that is family-unfriendly: four-letter words; drunken, murderous rages; grisly torture. Let's face it: Huckleberry Finn is not a children's book. It is a fairly anguished, very adult meditation on America's race problem and happens to have an adolescent for a hero. Maybe it is folly to base a musical on such a book, but at least the 1985 production did not shy, as Madison Family Theatre Company does, from preserving Twain's contentious, carefully chosen language.

The bowdlerizing is a pity, because this Big River has a lot to recommend it, especially its Jim, Gregory Brumfield, who sings like an angel. Country-music aficionados will enjoy the songs by the legendary Roger Miller, and although no single number attains "King of the Road"-level greatness, fans of the tunesmith will recognize his subversive wordplay and unapologetic sentimentality throughout. The finest song is Tom Sawyer's "Hand for the Hog," which makes an absurd case for replacing the dog with the pig as man's best friend. This is the kind of perfectly executed non sequitur out of which Miller built a career.

Now playing

Good Boy!: In this gentle special-effects comedy, all dogs are colonialists from outer space whom the imperium calls home for botching the domination, and it's up to one apple-cheeked lad (Liam Aiken) to keep the pooches here on Earth, where they're loved. A surplus of scatalogical jokes suggests a writing team out of ideas, but Matthew Broderick, Brittany Murphy and Vanessa Redgrave turn in amiable performances as the voices of the space dogs.

The House of the Dead: Some young people seek out a rave on an island, only to discover that the party has been gate-crashed by murderous, surprisingly athletic ghouls. The twist on the ancient naked-teenagers-devoured-by-zombies formula is action sequences staged to resemble the video game the film is based on, but watching these proves about as thrilling as watching someone play video games.

The Navigators: The British government turns the train system over to private companies, and a group of Yorkshire rail workers is left to confront free-market ideology and its discontents: pay cuts, layoffs, and corporate corruption. Set in 1995, Ken Loach's film is a sad slice of life, though what was at stake in the privatization of British Rail may not resonate much with American audiences, minus the odd Keynesian.

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