Sunday, September 21, 2008

How Shakespeare Won the West

Gratuitous Violin rating: *** out of ****

Playwright Richard Nelson name checks a lot of Shakespeare in How Shakespeare Won the West. And just like the Bard's works, Nelson gives his audience at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company a little history, a little comedy, a little tragedy - all rolled into one not always tidy package.

How Shakespeare Won the West, directed by Jonathan Moscone, is the first production under the leadership of the Huntington's new artistic director, Peter DuBois, who comes to Boston from New York's Public Theater.

The play follows a ragtag troupe of New York actors as they make their way to California in 1848. They dream of earning fame and making a fortune by putting on Shakespeare before audiences of extremely erudite gold miners. Nelson got the idea after reading an obituary for historian Helene Wickham Koon, who wrote a book called How Shakespeare Won the West, a study of Shakespearean productions during the Gold Rush.

The action opens in a New York City tavern, where Antje Ellerman's simple, unadorned wooden set looks like it could have come out of a Hollywood Western or a production of The Iceman Cometh. Thing start out very slowly. For the first 10 minutes or so, a few actors come on stage and talk to each other quietly or read. I couldn't figure out whether the play had begun or not. But I guess it hadn't, because we still hadn't heard the turn off your cell phone announcement.

Eventually, Buck Buchanan, an aspiring actor, played by Erik Lochtefeld, comes in. He's soon regaling everyone with stories of traveling troupes performing before wildly enthusiastic audiences in California Gold Rush country. The rough-edged miners are so knowledgeable about Shakespeare, they shout out the lines along with the actors and shower them with bags of gold dust in appreciation.

Soon enough, actor-turned-saloon-keeper Thomas Jefferson Calhoun, played by Boston theatre stalwart Will LeBow, his wife Alice, a former actress, played by Mary Beth Fisher, and their daughter Susan, an aspiring ingenue, played very sweetly and eagerly by Sarah Nealis, are putting together a company to bring Shakespeare to the culture-starved masses.

This part - where the Calhouns are searching for the right performers for their troupe - is very funny and it's probably my favorite section of the play. Sure, they're kind of stock types, but they're done well, with great humor - including the alcoholic, philandering leading man, the character actor, the comic relief, the ingenue, the child star.

I liked LeBow and Fisher as journeymen performers who've given up treading the boards but not their dreams of stardom. The rest of the cast is good, too. Jeremiah Kissel starts out very funny as a pretend British thespian, then turns unexpectedly poignant. Kelly Hutchinson is great as the hooker with a heart of gold. Chris Henry Coffey is suitably self-important as the leading man with the drinking problem and Susannah Schulman is affecting as his long-suffering wife, who's also a leading lady. Joe Tapper adds some nice comic relief as a childhood friend of Susan's and a wannabe performer.

Nealis and Schulman have a truly hilarious scene as child actors who perform snippets of Shakespeare. But there are so many characters in this play, no one really gets a chance to stand out. It's one of those love letters to the theatre. And I think the actors in this company should be a bit over the top and larger than life. But too often, they just fade into the background.

My problem with How Shakespeare Won the West actually begins when the troupe leaves New York. I guess I hadn't realized how much of the story would be about the journey, rather than the destination. It takes them almost the whole play to get to California, and I have to admit that at times, my mind began to wander. That's not good in a play that's only 1 hour and 40 minutes long.

Then, there's a point in the action when what had been a very funny play takes a tragic turn. It changes the whole tone and it kind of threw me. I don't mind comedy and tragedy in the same play, but this transition seemed kind of abrupt. Things had been pretty lighthearted until then, but afterward, they become very serious. The play stopped being as funny as it had been. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of humor, but it almost seemed like a different play.

All sorts of disasters befall this troupe of actors - and some of them seem like things that would really have happened on the journey west. But some of them seem, well, more unbelievable. For example, Abraham Lincoln and Buffalo Bill show up. (Not at the same time, though.) And in a bizarre scene, the actors are kidnapped by a group of bigoted religious zealots. I don't mind a witty, incisive satire of organized religion, but this just seemed like a bit of a cheap shot.

Nelson is trying to be insightful about the power of theatre in general - and Shakespeare in particular - to speak to disparate audiences. Along the way, he's trying to say something about the resiliency of the pioneers, religious intolerance, homophobia and the treatment of Native Americans. And I might even be leaving something out. To some extent, he succeeds. In one nice scene, a Native American chief is riveted by the group's performance of King Lear.

Unfortunately, while there were some truly comic moments, there weren't enough of them. And the tragedy and history sometimes felt forced. Also, at first the miners don't exactly greet the troupe with open arms, which somewhat undercuts Nelson's premise that they're so eager for high-class entertainment.

I think Nelson has stuffed a lot of ideas and characters into a relatively short amount of time - and that may be why, for me, the journey at the heart of How Shakespeare Won the West wasn't as fulfilling as I'd hoped it would be.

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