By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Hip Pocket Theatre is out in the middle of nowhere at the end of a dirt road--kind of dodgy to city folk unsure about whether cows bite. But as your car scrapes along, the trees part and reveal a grassy clearing lit with strands of tiny lights and hemmed in by several little wooden structures--one for the box office, one for refreshments, one for the dressing room. People mill around or relax in lawn chairs, listening to the live music that precedes the show and enjoying a beer in the late-evening air.
For a cynical city-dweller, a night at the Hip Pocket is full of surprises, being a mix of the professional and the unaffected. The atmosphere is utterly precious and seems a perfect setting for Hip Pocket's production of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, an adaptation by Johnny Simons of Mark Twain's novel. The play looks at what happens when Hank the Yank, a factory foreman around the turn of the 20th century, suffers a blow to the head and is transported to Camelot in the year 528. With the help of a cigarette lighter and an almanac, he convinces Arthur's court that he's a magician who can blot out the sun and create fire in his hand.
The Hip Pocket stage is like something the Lost Boys would have built if they'd majored in carpentry, a surprisingly elaborate and well-built wooden contraption that sits among and under the trees, with different levels and walkways and hiding places for actors to make their entrances. The word "quaint" has never seemed so apt, and that goes well with the homespun musical score played on Casios and the crushed-beer-can armor that appears on the "knights" later in the show.
Unlike with most community theater, the cast of the show never seems to take itself too seriously. This lends itself well to Twain's original satirical tone, as everyone is silly and over the top. Arthur is ridiculously short and has to stand on a box; Clarence the jester is delightfully mincey; the ladies-in-waiting shriek and giggle and burst into tears for no reason, and the British accents all around are wonderfully dreadful. Jousters wear metal serving platters strapped to their chests and plastic rocking horses around their waists. But again, the touch of well-practiced professional theater is present, and the cast have developed their characters well, taking advantage of the wackiness the play calls for. Hank, played by Matthew Groff, is an excellent leading man, who not only holds the play together but manages to shine as a physical comic. Co-star Emmy Zabcik, who plays the maiden Hank meets on his strange mental journey, is appropriately melodramatic and makes a good slapsticky accomplice. The cast is rounded off by several knights, none of whom speaks much but who come close to scene-stealing when they do.
The 27-year-old theater company keeps things sharp when it needs to: The fighting is well-choreographed, and the pace is generally tight. Twain's original theme of class struggle, however, isn't broached until the second of two acts, and by then it seems hasty and shoved-in. Add to this the several random dance scenes, which make the show rather inappropriately surreal, and the structure of the play seems weak.
We go to Hip Pocket, though, for what makes it most enjoyable. Connecticut Yankee is a cute, silly play done in a laid-back space, and it never tries to be anything more. Though the show is well-produced, the actors don't seem to mind looking foolish, and the director hasn't tried to force in artsy gimmicks. For those skittish of esoteric monologues delivered in obscure black boxes, it's a godsend.