POST-DISPATCH THEATER CRITIC06/07/2010
While Stages St. Louis mounts its beautiful production of “Big River” in Kirkwood, OnSite Theatre Company has gone to Soulard with another take on Mark Twain’s great novel, a funky, funny show called “The Adventures of Huckleberry Hostel.” Taken together, it’s a vivid demonstration of how art stays alive, inspiring other artists.
That, however, sounds a little heavy for “Huckleberry Hostel,” written by Dan Rubin expressly for this OnSite production. A ramshackle farce that riffs on “Huckleberry Finn,” Rubin’s modern travelers, Finn (Antonio Rodriguez) and James (Justin Rincker, who also directs), are holed up at a Soulard hostel where their various entanglements — familial, legal and romantic — threaten to trap them forever.
It’s clever, as the audience — divided into two groups — sees this story play out on two stages. Some people go to a common room, where the would-be artist Emmeline (Emily Piro) plays piano whenever she can manage to stay awake.
Others go to a dorm room. There, the hostel’s owner (Ann Marie Mohr, in a tasty performance) is squabbling with her sister, an ambiguously devout lesbian (Jenn Bock). Why does everybody leave me, the owner moans in self-pity. Maybe, her sister snaps, it’s because you run a hostel. Rubin’s a smart writer, quick with a comeback and generous with his characters.
As the actors run across a courtyard from one setting to the other, the play adds up to a single story that locks together like a jigsaw puzzle. It doesn’t matter which room you go to first.
As usual at OnSite, it’s fun to see a play from such a strange perspective: We’re part of the set. (So, of course, are the people who happen to be current guests at the hostel, a Soulard landmark for years. They add to the play’s authenticity; maybe the play adds to their St. Louis experience.)
But what part of the set are we? Mohr and Bock greet us as guests, but we must be invisible ones. These people seem willing to say, or do, just about anything in front of us! When an actress sits down so close to you that you can see not only her eyes but her mascara, isn’t it strange that she doesn’t seem to see you at all?
It’s as if you’re invisible, the same as in an old-fashioned theater where we agree that “reality” is confined to the stage. But how does that change when there is no stage, just a regular room — that actors and audience share? It’s OK if OnSite can’t answer that. It’s intriguing just to see them pose the question, in one strange, original play after another.
Although it’s very enjoyable, “Huckleberry Hostel” isn’t for everybody. There’s a good deal of walking, some of it on stairs and some of it in the dark. Also, at the 9 p.m. show on Saturday night the common room was so hot that one woman seated herself on the window ledge, frantic for a breeze. If you go, equip yourself: flat shoes, a flashlight and a paper fan are all in order. Maybe you should put them in a duffel bag. It would fit right in.
“But what part of the set are we?” I love this. My favorite part of this review—other than the ego-stroking of being called a smart writer—is that it is intrigued (and possibly a little put off?) by not being able to quantify this site-specific experience, yet it is accepting of that discomfort. Not only is the alternative reality of the play confined to the stage, but we, the audience, invisible, are also trapped there. Like ghosts whose souls may not rest. The actors and the audience share a space but not a dimension. It is odd! We talked about how this would play as revisions were happening: what is the role of the audience/guests of the hostel? It is a fascinating question.