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‘Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza’: A zippy, historical ride through America’s tall tales

The Cast of “Mark Twain's Riverboat Extravaganza!” (Frank Cervarich, Zach Latta, Rachel Menyuk, David Olson, Tim German, and Becca Ballinger). (Mel Bieler/Mel Bieler)

A puppet of Abraham Lincoln pops out the window of a Mississippi riverboat — or a cardboard cutout of one — and warns the audience, “Take everything you see with a grain of salt!”

That’s the appropriate seasoning, for sure, because “Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza” takes audiences on a ride through six classic American tall tales, with dollops of history folded in to give the stories context. The 75-minute family-friendly piece, devised by Pointless Theatre and at the Capital Fringe Festival, filters the tales through 19th-century vaudeville styles and the company’s whimsical sensibilities. The troupe likes to throw actors and puppets onstage together.

Twain characters such as Tom Sawyer (Frank Cervarich), Huckleberry Finn (Zachary Latta), and Becky Thatcher (Rebecca Ballinger) take on various roles, while Lincoln acts as debunker-in-chief. Throughout the show, characters might start as human and morph into puppets. Revolutionary War battles take place between cardboard cannons, and cardboard Redcoats and cardboard men with George Washington — all manipulated by actors.

After greetings and introductions, the “Extravaganza” kicks off with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” who dozed off in 1764 after drinking with strangers in the mountains and woke up after the revolution. He’s followed by Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with poor Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, then Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan (who was apparently an ad man’s concoction), John Henry and Casey Jones. Along the way, we learn about the Civil War and Industrial Revolution.

Although the level of performance varies and the staging could be tighter, Pointless Theatre’s energetic and visually piquant mix of actors, puppetry, dance and music — and fact and fable — offers diverting, educational entertainment for kids and parents.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza

by John Hamilton. Performed by Pointless Theatre. 75 minutes. Through July 27 at Capital Fringe Festival. Go to

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