Fort Worth — Yes, folks, there was a Mr. Weaver in Johnny Simons’ growing up years, a card-carrying “old Indian man” of the Cherokee tribe. Mr. Weaver’s annual backyard circuses and shows were a neighborhood tradition, keeping everyone busy on summer evenings. Simons took on the legacy as a young man, first with shows cobbled together behind the family home near Lake Worth—and eventually with the quirky, musical, eye-catching (and often puppet-frolicking) productions that became the home-brew Simons and his co-founder wife Diane called Hip Pocket Theatre.
And now, to open the company’s 40th anniversary season, we have Simons’ “memory play” of those times, Mr. Weaver’s Backyard Circus Presents: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It’s a hot Texas summer night, and the neighbors have gathered to follow orders from their director (“Yes, sir, Mr. Weaver!”) and get this unruly show on the road. Metal pans and colanders become helmets, brooms become horse’s tails, and chenille bedspreads morph into medieval finery for kings and counselors in this Mark Twain story of an inventive American knocked unconscious—only to wake in the year of King Arthur, 528, where his “everyday” Yankee know-how will seem like a wizard’s magic to the locals.
Polished, it’s not—but when was Hip Pocket trying to be that? This is a rough and rustic version of Twain’s tale, performed by a typically uneven ensemble of actors, some trained, some as green as the grass growing right up to the stockade walls of Hip Pocket’s Silver Creek Amphitheater, set down in the woods and scrub lands west of Fort Worth proper.
Simons’ adaptation gets the tone of Twain’s 1889 novel just right. This isn’t the perky Technicolor movie version of the 1940s (“no room for Bing” here, says one character), but something closer to the original—ironical and funny at times, but with a dark, even bitter view of humanity and the things it gets up to. Twain wasn’t fooling around inConnecticut Yankee, and neither, in the end, is Simon, who uses the ever-present, ever-reacting Mr. Weaver as his framing device for the show: its impresario, its narrator, its teller of truths.
“You have to have the darkness to understand the light,” Weaver (a fine performance from Thad Isbell) tells the younger folk who plead for the story to turn out well. From “trickster” beginnings (Twain’s heroic American Hank uses his almanac to predict he can “blot out the sun” over Camelot—it’s a solar eclipse) and comic jousts we turn to serious ones: threats of execution and assassination and black magic. Hank and King Arthur disguise themselves to find out how the other half lives in Olde England, and nearly lose their lives.
John Murphy as Hank and Quentin McGown as Arthur bring a nice brand of gravitas to their roles. Clowns to the left of them, jokers to the right—and they’re stuck in the middle, two sensible gents trying to get things done. Playing against them, Carmen Scott’s cartoonish version of Hank’s medieval love interest Sandy (she’s a galumphing girl, leaping into Hank’s arms—and nearly overturning him—every time they meet) feels out of place—yet Simons, a savvy director, must have wanted it so.
Michael Joe Goggans’ hollow-cheeked face seems made for Merlin; Rebo Hill and Brian Cook are a handsome pair of lovers as Guenever and Launcelot; and Julie Ballew moves sinuously as the bloody-minded Morgana Le Fay. Jeremy Jackson carries (literally) the show’s signature contribution from puppeteer Lake Simons—a pink piglet/enchanted princess. (She’ll come down from NYC later in the summer for HPT’s third show, Don Quixote, with music by John Dyer.)
The ensemble has some fine moments. As Hank’s mind whirls backward in time, they lean in around his prone figure, arms waving in a hypnotic rhythm. To describe Camelot’s jousts and tournaments, individual ensemble members leap to their feet to tell, thrillingly, of each encounter—while in humorous contrast, a pair of guardsmen “act out” the jousts with tiny action figures flailing their puny arms.
By now, of course, HPT is as much a vibe and an experience as it is a single show. Cicadas and crickets keep up pre- and post-show hum, and there’s music every night from different groups in the Hip Pocket Backyard. Bring a hand fan and some bug spray—but the truth is, by show time things have cooled down just enough (by Texas standards, anyway) to make viewing a mostly comfortable experience.
Next in this 40th-season lineup is another of Simons’ memory plays, The Distant Echo of Ancient Youth, followed by Lake Simons’ Quixote, and then a legendary Hip Pocket play that hasn’t been seen for decades, Johnny Simons’ The Lake Worth Monster—A Musical Odyssey, with music by the late Douglas Balentine.
If it’s summer, it must be Hip Pocket.