Theater Review: Will Stutts in “Mark Twain’s America”

Will Stutts - Mark Twain - Photo by Shannon Wells Until very recently, I had never seen a one-man show.  I love theater, even minored in it in college, yet somehow that one basic form always eluded me when I attended productions.

Thankfully, I can no longer say that. Mark Twain’s America made for both a fantastic evening and spectacular show.

My wife works at a public library in Alabama.  This year, the whole state decided to do a joint Big Read series dealing with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.  Jennifer wrote a grant through the Alabama State Council on the Arts for her library’s finale event to be Will Stutts (a local actor) touring a circuit of libraries and schools performing his show Mark Twain’s America.

I was lucky enough to catch the final performance of the tour, and for two hours, I was enlightened on what it must have felt like 150 years ago when people gathered to hear Samuel Clemens speak.

That Takes Character

From the moment Will Stutts walked on stage, he was Mark Twain.  His ability to entirely become the character probably facilitated the best part of the experience: there was no narrative arc to speak of.  He didn’t try to act anything out or move a story from Point A to Point B; Stutts simply became Samuel Clemens  and talked to us.  He read from Huck Finn, told stories, and made a local town the butt of many a joke.  Just like Clemens would have.

Part of my enjoyment probably comes from being a book nerd and academic.  I love to hear interesting people talk, so it was nice to get a “lecture” from Mark Twain.  Stutts was able to perfectly match the unique cadence and humor found in Twain’s essays and fiction, making for a completely believable character.  Twain’s writing style is so hard to imitate that I went in not knowing what to expect.  But Will Stutts immediately made me believe that Samuel Clemens stood on that stage in front of me, just talking and telling stories.

Mr. Twain, Tell Me a Story

I’ve always been a Mark Twain fan. I love his stories. I love the words he uses. I love the humor he uses to satirize and attack everything the readers hold dear, while still somehow managing to put smiles on their faces. And yet, I do not like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I know, blasphemy, right? And from an English teacher? I might as well be drawn and quartered as I sit here writing.

huck finnBut it’s the truth.  While I feel that Huck Finn was necessary and important, I feel that Twain tried too hard with it and got away from the wit and wry humor that permeated all of his other work.  It was too dark, too serious, and too overtly political.

So when I went to see a Mark Twain show for Alabama’s Tom Sawyer program, I expected to hear a little about Tom.  When he started to read, I was hoping for Tom.  And instead got Huck. Now, the performance was fantastic. I’d have to break out one of my books to find exactly where he stopped and if he abridged anything, but Stutts made a wondrous monologue out of Huck’s meeting Jim and starting their trip down the Mighty Mississippi.

While I would have probably enjoyed excerpts from Tom Sawyer more, I can’t complain. As far as “book readings” go, Will Stutts’ Mark Twain takes the cake for any I’ve ever seen or heard.

1000 performances. Seriously.

You read that right. 1000. Over that, actually. In the past 42 years, Will Stutts has performed Mark Twain’s America over 1000 times. He began when he was in college and has since traveled the country doing performances.

And it shows, honestly. In a very good way.  Stutts knew this show inside and out, so when a piece of minor technical difficulty arose, he handled it perfectly as only trained, professional actors can. His mic was unplugged and someone from the audience shouted “we can’t hear you!” so he talked back to him and eventually walked off stage when he couldn’t fix the problem himself.  And he did everything in-character. He never stopped being Mark Twain.

To me, that’s the mark of a true professional who cares about his work. The mic never flustered him; he barely seemed to notice.  When he came back on stage, he made a snide comment about losing his place in his lecture, made us all laugh, and continued with his performance. It was obvious throughout the incident that he had done the show many more times than I can honestly say I can fathom.

tom sawyerBut 1000 times? He’s had everything go wrong that could go wrong, and he knew how to handle it. And it shows. Even when the show hit a speed bump, it never felt like it.  Stutts’ Twain was so spot-on that even hiccups became a part of the illusion.

I was informed by my wife that this is the reason that he did Huck Finn and not Tom Sawyer.  Huck was a part of the show, and there was no way to work around and change such an established script to suit the theme of this one tour he did.  Which I completely understand; if I ever get to the point where I do something 1000+ times, I doubt I’ll change it very much, either.

Never The Twain Shall Meet?

I do not precisely know when the next time I’ll have an opportunity to see a Will Stutts show will be, but I can guarantee you this: I will be there with a smile on my face.  I was impressed by this one, and the more time that passes since I have seen it, my enjoyment actually grows.  It’s one of those shows, the kind where I thought it was fun and good the night I saw it (it even garnered a “huh” out of me when it was over), but the more I think about it and the effort and love put in, the more I am truly glad I spent that rainy Friday night listening to Mark Twain go on about his America.

Now, when is Stutts coming back to town for that Edgar Allan Poe one-man show I’ve heard so much about?

Will Stutts Photo by Shannon Wells

Comments

  1. I feel wierd to say that I have not yet been able to read Mark Twain. But he’s definitely on my reading list and hope to seen get my hands on Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

    However I have read an excerpt from Tom Sawyer and I know that it’s just simply great. Thing is there is too much stuff to read out there and being a newbie I need some years before I can say, “Yeah this? This is great, I love it. And yeah, that too.”

    Hmm, I have noted the name of “Stutts” and will see if I can someday see him perform. Thanks for sharing this info sir!
    .-= Dk´s last blog ..A Knock on da Door and an Ant on da Floor =-.

    • Oh, you definitely need to read Twain. I suggest Tom Sawyer, first and foremost, then check out his short fiction. It’s some of the best American short fiction that’s ever been written. Outside of Tom Sawyer, I think his short fiction is the best stuff he did, even better than Huck Finn and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (one of my other favorites).