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All Thumbs: Henry Fielding’s Tom Thumb, Fried and with Lots of Butter

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in The Village Voice, 18 May 2004.

Henry Fielding was only 23 years old when his short and silly burlesque Tom Thumb had its London premiere in 1730, so the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf may be forgiven if its adaptation feels like a sophomoric lark. Fielding’s plot gets lost in a production that crosses collegiate buffoonery with the more ambitious shenanigans of Dadaist cabaret. In director Brook O’Harra’s version, the eponymous hero now takes the form of a potato-a regular spud that’s addressed, kissed, fondled, and eaten by the human actors. Although its lines turn out to be among the few comprehensible parts of a play that invents its own language, the potato, at risk of becoming a mere side dish, has graciously ceded most of the dialogue to its human co-stars.

When speaking for themselves and not on behalf of the potato, the actors utter a gibberish that mixes Swedish-sounding cadences, Zulu clucks, omitted consonants, and distorted vowels. Those unfamiliar with Fielding’s play will be relieved by occasional repetitions of scenes in vernacular and summaries projected on video screens. The potato performs au naturel while the rest of the cast wears papier-mâché costumes reminiscent of old Madonna videos. Phalluses and conic breasts abound, and the audience views them from a variety of angles thanks to a slew of video cameras attached to props and actors’ bodies.

By the end, most of the gags seemed half-baked. A narrator deadpans pseudo-profundities on the significance of the potato, and a program note asks us to use the play to “reconsider how our heroes are sold to the public.” It’s tongue in cheek-I hope!-but a proper meal would balance all that starch with more meat.

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