Hip Pocket Theatre opened its 40th anniversary season on Friday with something vintage but, in true Johnny Simons style, reimagined.
He originally wrote his adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court about a half-century ago when he directed for Casa Mañana Children’s Playhouse. But, he says, his original vision of a story that was both fantastical and dark was stifled in favor of the happy, happy, happy.
Even in subsequent productions at Hip Pocket, which he co-founded, he hadn’t rewritten it to be the show he always envisioned — but that has changed with Mr. Weaver’s Backyard Circus Presents: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which runs through June 26.
It’s framed as an everyday exercise by Mr. Weaver (Thad Isbell) and his gang of make-believers, much like the Simonses (Johnny and wife Diane) did in their own Lake Worth yard before Hip Pocket was officially formed.
When Jimmy (charming John Murphy) shows up and is knocked out by Hercules (Dustin Curry), Jimmy becomes Hank and is the Hartford, Conn., engineer who appears in the sixth-century era of King Arthur (Quentin McGown), Guinevere (Rebo Hill), Lancelot (Brian Cook), the boy Clarence (played as a clown, by Gary Payne), Merlin (Michael Joe Goggans) and members of the medieval court. After Hank tricks them with his modern “magic,” he becomes Sir Boss and is given a mistress, Sandy (Carmen Scott), with whom he falls in love.
This delightful production is filled with Johnny Simons staples, such as the ensemble exclaiming “ooh” and “aah” in unison reactions, and there are even references to Hip Pocket’s past (“There is no room for Bing Crosby on Highway 80”). The cast enthusiastically jumps into the theatrical playpen. Johnny’s daughter Lake designed the hand-held pig puppet for the Swineherd (Paul Heyduck).
Johnny’s biggest change is what he wanted all along. About three-quarters through the 80-minute show, Mr. Weaver explains to Clarence: “We must have darkness to understand the light.” That’s when Twain’s darker themes about the common man and the noble man, the past vs. the present and Twain’s disdain for authors who romanticized the past — because thinking like that is what keeps society from moving forward — are boldest.
It’s fitting for a Fort Worth institution that embraces the past and Johnny’s unwavering aesthetic, yet remains relevant and surprising.