Chicago Theater Review: TWAIN’S WORLD (First Floor Theatre at Hugen Hall)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 12, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


The sardonically named Twain’s World (that hint of amateurism is to be heeded), this year’s week-long LitFest from First Floor Theatre is devoted to the works (first act) and life (second) of America’s crown jester, Mark Twain. Seven ten-minute plays written by local writers and staged by Chicago directors testify to the range and depth of the Hartford sage. A chronicler of our crimes and hopes, Samuel Clemens was quite possibly this country’s greatest critic, satirical and sentimental, achingly true to our best and worst impulses.

Rebecca Marquadt and Amanda Fink in  TWAIN'S WORLD - First Floor Theater.

Unfortunately, these tribute vignettes show just how much we miss and need Twain. Most strike out three times with one swing. The two best scenes, not surprisingly, are lifted from Twain himself. Marilyn Campbell-Lowe and Linda Laundra lovingly recreate “Little Bessie,” a wry dialogue staged by Jesse Roth that fulminates between out-of-the-mouths-of babes’ Bessie and her smugly religious mother. Curious and petulant, Bessie (Amada Fink) interrogates mom (Rebecca Marquardt) about virgin birth and its claim on cults, evil deeds that question God’s omnipotence, and other “mysterious ways” that defy logic, common sense and bedrock morality. The mother’s rote answers, of course, are worse than none.

Conor Woods and Kate Cornelius-Schecter in  TWAIN'S WORLD - First Floor Theater.

Other creditable offerings concern Twain’s life. Will Bishop’s “When Beggars Die, There Are No Comets Seen” uses inventive puppetry to connect Twain with Halley’s Comet, his guardian celestial object, whose visits to earth in 1835 and 1910 neatly spanned Twain’s entire existence. Emmett Rensin’s “Death of Jean” has Conor Woods as Twain revisiting the death from epilepsy of his beloved daughter Jean (Kate Cornelius). Morgan McNaught’s “Dear Liv” depicts Twain and wife Olivia as young correspondents (Chris Fowler and Hannah Alcorn) exchanging letters that predict a lifelong ardor and rather rational romance.

Hannah Alcorn and Chris Fowler in  TWAIN'S WORLD - First Floor Theater.

Alas, the pieces drawn from Twain’s work ironically testify to the sheer superiority of their source. Ike Holter’s “Sender” updates Tom Sawyer’s phony death and its effect on Becky Thatcher: Here Tom is a selfish lost lover who returns, thinks he can escape again, and finds himself mired in social media, his betrayal a very public change of status. It changes the novel’s conditions but adds nothing in the process.

Bear Bellinger and Colin Sphar in  TWAIN'S WORLD - First Floor Theater.

Paul Oakley Stovall’s “Parker” revisits Huck and Jim (Colin Sphar and Bear Bellinger), now dealing with a dead Arizona sheriff connected to Huck’s evil dad. The raft has now become a car but too much is lost in an unnecessary translation.

Rachel Copel and Aurora Adachi-Winter in  TWAIN'S WORLD - First Floor Theater.

Worst of all is Molly FitzMaurice’s stridently irritating “A Medieval Romance,” obnoxious where Twain was playful. Its convoluted story of a gender-reversed prince and his apparent misconduct is swallowed up whole by Taylor Bailey’s braying staging, a monstrous misconception that both modernizes and trivializes the silly story. The fever pitch of this often incoherent trifle perversely fits the heavy-handedness of this muddled farce.

Johnard Washington and Jay Cullen in  TWAIN'S WORLD - First Floor Theater.

The inexcusable lack of air conditioning also made every scene feel much longer than it should have. Besides the four passable salutes to Twain, the trellis backdrop by Bobby Huggins makes an agreeable setting and Benjamin Heller plays a very mellow bluegrass banjo.

Jessica Marks and Tony Santiago in  TWAIN'S WORLD - First Floor Theater.

photos courtesy of First Floor Theatre

Twain’s World
First Floor Theatre
Strawdog Theatre’s Hugen Hall
scheduled to end on July 19, 2014
for tickets visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit


Nancy Heller July 12, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Correction please. The very mellow banjo player is Benjamin Heller.

Tony Frankel July 13, 2014 at 9:43 am

It has been corrected, Nancy! Thank you.

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