Bored? Here’s an idea, for those of you with abundant time and disposable income. Rent a cabin and download a copy of Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones” on your Kindle. (Or buy a physical book, if you’re the retro type.) It’s a funny book — at least once you start to think like an 18th century Englishman, which usually takes your first week. Plan for a three-week stay: Fielding’s novel weighs in at around 1,000 pages. If you’re pressed for time, no worries. Playwright Mark Brown read the book for you and distilled it into a 90-minute play. You can check out the premiere at Florida Studio Theatre.
Fielding’s novel is a sprawling, discursive, goodhearted tale of a rake’s odyssey across England. Brown’s adaptation is a fast-paced, take-no-prisoners Monty Python-style farce. A quick summary? Well, that’s sort of like reducing “Atlas Shrugged” to a Twitter post — but I’ll try.
Squire Allworthy adopts Tom Jones, a servant’s illegitimate son and raises him as his own. Tom is a bastard in name only; his cousin Blifil is a right bastard. Tom falls in love with a wealthy landowner’s daughter, Sofia. Her land-hungry father, Squire Western, wants Sofia to marry Blifil. He joins forces with Blifil to trick Squire Allworthy into disinheriting Tom. The cast-out lad sets forth, enjoys adventures and various women, escapes the noose and marries Sophia. Oh, and there’s a letter that reveals Tom’s true identity at the end. I think that was a law back then.
Ah, skip it. “Rake’s Odyssey” will do.
Brown shoehorns a surprising amount of Fielding’s 346,747-word story onto the stage intact. But plot is pretext for “Looney Tunes” comedy. This is the playwright behind the heroically wacky adaptation of “Around the World in 80 Days,” after all. You know you’re in for a ride.
Low comedy? Well, just call it comedy. Brown leaves no pun unpunished or bawdy joke unsaid.
Anachronisms? You bet. Influences? You name it. We mentioned the Monty Python troupe. The robots who talk through the movie on Mystery Science Theater 3,000 are a clear influence as well; the actors give voice to the playwright’s muttered asides. Brainy stuff? Sure. Brown’s a fan of post-modern gags pointing out the dramaturgical machinery. The Narrator (who boasts that he can wander into any scene at will) thanks the second-act audience for coming back and says he’s not worried about the ones who didn’t because, “We already have their money.” (There’s even a throwaway nod to English majors for a character Fielding pulled out of his hat in the last chapter!) Sight gags? From revolving beds to plastic babies that’s a yes. Did a Welsh pop star steal the hero’s name from the Albert Finney movie? Cue: “It’s Not Unusual.” Did Finney have a famous food seduction scene? The kitchen sink? I think he’s saving it for the musical.
Basically, if it makes the audience laugh, Brown put it in there. And, boy, did the opening-night audience laugh. Director Mark Shanahan (a sure-handed veteran of several Brown comedies) pushed all the right buttons. The safety bar came down, and the ride was on.
Nine actors serve as carnies and roustabouts on Mr. Tom’s Wild Ride. Matthew Goodrich (who’s the spitting image of the young Finney) plays the titular hero. He’s heroic, honest, inventive, kind and faithful — well, no, you can’t have everything. Bruce Warren’s Blifil is the designated creep who foils Tom’s plans. Warren’s a great physical comic, with a range veering from Jackie Gleason double-takes to Terry Jones’ drag bits.
Faith Sandberg’s Sophia reminds me of a tough-minded Tracey Ullman character transported to the 18th century. Graciany Miranda gets consistent laughs as the magical narrator. As Sophia’s father, Howard Kaye goes into instant rants like a low-rent King Lear. Ron Seibert’s Squire Allworthy is the only sane one. (Even wacky plays need a straight man.) Kudos also to Lisa McMillan, Wilmari Myburgh and Eileen Ward as various twins, dowagers and doctors. No weak links here. They’re a great team of comic actors — and they make the wild ride seem effortless.
If you feel like laughing, it’s a ride worth taking.
And, in case you’re still feeling guilty about skipping the book and reading the Cliff Notes in high school … relax.
You don’t need to know Latin to enjoy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” You can enjoy this play without reading Fielding’s novel. But, if you ever have the time, I still recommend it.
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