Lust for Life

A Rough and Tumble Tom Jones

Some matches are made in heaven. For example, the pairing of Rough and Tumble, the 2-year-old theatrical ensemble, which is "dedicated to the performance and preservation of world comedy," and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. Not only do the hero of the much beloved novel and this irreverent company share high spirits and buoyant energy, they both manage to triumph over various troubles by the sheer weight of their good intentions.

Not many of us are so lucky. But, as the aptly named Squire Allworthy (Lewis Sims) says of his foster son, "There's a powerful force for good in that boy, if only he will learn to control his enthusiasms." Fortunately for those who love good comedy, neither Tom (Michael Ordona) nor his Rough and Tumble interpreters (smartly directed by Cliff Mayotte) are very interested in control. The result (co-produced with the 450 Geary Studio) is an evening of high spirits and unflagging comic delight.

As adapted by Peter Jeffries, it's an exhilarating ride on a spirited if reliable mount. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling was an immediate success when it was published in London in 1749, and has been tweaking the middle-class sense of propriety ever since. (The movie version starring Albert Finney won the best picture Oscar in 1964.) An unrepentantly joyous celebration of sexuality, sensuality, and the presumed basic good in ordinary human beings, Tom Jones features an unlikely 18th-century hero: an illegitimate foundling whose adoption by the kindly squire both gives him access to the establishment and forever relegates him to its fringes. He cannot inherit Allworthy's estate, and -- worse for this tale of true love -- he cannot hope to marry Sophie Western (Mary Beth Caton), the beautiful neighbor with whom he is smitten at first sight.

The story is pleasantly familiar: The infant Tom, presumably the out-of-wedlock issue of Allworthy's maid, Jenny Jones (Lissy Walker), and his barber, Partridge (Joshua Pollock), is discovered in Allworthy's bed by that nobleman's unmarried sister, Bridgett (Janet Keller). Jenny and Partridge are banished, and Tom is taken in to be raised as Allworthy's son. Bridgett marries, is widowed, and returns home with a son, an unnaturally pious sort known to all as Mr. Blifil (Michael Carroll). Tom proves himself a genial young man who makes friends easily and so incurs the jealous wrath of both Mr. Blifil and Thwackum (Robert Parsons), the tutor hired to teach lessons Tom has no inclination for.

Through a series of carefully plotted twists and turns, Tom is set up, betrayed, and exiled to seek his own fortune. He encounters the voluptuous Jenny, now a high-priced whore calling herself Mrs. Waters. He also is waylaid by Partridge, who has been forced into an unsuccessful life as a thief since being turned out by Squire Allworthy. Tom identifies himself and learns that Partridge and Jenny are not really his parents. Meanwhile, the lusty Squire Western (Danny Kovacs) is determined to marry Sophie off to Blifil. A mysterious letter placed in the wrong hands, Allworthy's brush with death, and Blifil's villainy conspire to doom Tom's prospects.

It will not surprise anyone to learn that it all comes right in the end. The fun, of course, is in the ride, and in spite of a tentative beginning, Rough and Tumble does not disappoint. They understand very well that, story aside, it's Fielding's narrative voice that gives the book its zest and satiric punch. Jeffries' adaptation and Mayotte's direction have generously endowed the company as a whole with narrative responsibility. They march out smartly at the beginning, take seats that have been set in orderly rows, and, when not themselves acting the story out -- most actors have multiple roles -- watch it all unfold. As accompanied by the inventive musical skills of Robert Parsons and Joshua Pollock, who alternate as Rough and Tumble's one-man band, the effect is that of a three-ring circus.

I suspect that by now (the show premiered on June 6) the performances have lost the unfortunate tentativeness they seemed hampered by on opening night. Time has probably done a great deal to correct shaky line readings and an overall sense that the show (first presented as a staged reading in November of 1994) was underrehearsed.

As Tom Jones, Michael Ordona is pleasant and softly sensual. His lack of forceful affect, initially disappointing, actually works well for the material, as Tom is intended to represent virtually any hapless innocent with good intentions.

Mary Beth Caton's Sophie Western is a marvel of high spirits, mischievous sexuality, and tender affection. She lends a shrewd intelligence to Sophie's plucky streak of independence, which makes this heroine more than a match for the aristocratic patriarchy, represented by her hotheaded father, Squire Western -- played with boisterous relish by Danny Kovacs.

In the role of the odious Blifil, Michael Carroll turns himself into a sexless, pallid, lip-pursing goldfish. He's the quintessential 90-pound weakling who almost inspires sympathy until he shows his truly villainous colors. My favorite Blifil moment comes when he is confronted with his evil deeds: He pulls out his ever-present white handkerchief to mop his brow, but even in this moment of crisis, he cannot bear to be excessive, and dabs at his prominent forehead in tiny, precise motions.

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