September 9, 2008
‘Outlaw’ Script Lets Everyone Down
By Phil Grecian
By Phil Grecian
SPECIAL TO THE CAPITAL-JOURNAL
You don't see many cowboy plays. Once you get past "Green Grow the Lilacs" (which, musicalized, became "Oklahoma!"), "Annie Get Your Gun,""Destry Rides Again" and a handful of others, the field gets pretty thin. Topeka Civic Theatre has opened their 2008-2009 season with a cowboy play, Norm Foster's "Outlaw."
Most people in theatre view a play through the lenses of their personal disciplines. Your friendly neighborhood critic has made a living as a playwright (still does), actor, director and technician. Here's "Outlaw" through some lenses.
The technician's lens: Ted Shonka's set features a thick carpet of real dirt and dust, faux rocks and a glorious hanging tree. I chuckled appreciatively when sudden moves brought on clouds of dust. The sound system has been upgraded for this show and the dialogue, often garbled in the past, is remarkably clear and clean. Kate Stires' costumes for the four cowboys are a delightful combination of Ponderosa and Peckinpah.
The director's lens: Civic's main stage is wide. Four people on an exterior set would be lost, so Shonka's set reduces the size of the stage with an island of dirt and light. Director Shannon Reilly, then, has to keep four men moving in interesting ways in a smaller space. It's the kind of thing directors love to do. He does it well here.
The actor's lens: Bruce Smith is delightful as Sheriff Dupuis Tarwater, a dusty and dim mama's boy, wearing a badge he hardly deserves. Smith, the actor, clearly relishes and plumbs everything possible from every moment. Shawn Trimble as farmer Bob Hicks, down from Canada to make cattle drive money, has a hard job done well, as he changes mood and tactics bargaining for his life. Eddie Shirron, with his deep voice and military bearing, is perfect as Roland Keets, the powerful and rich rancher who is used to giving orders and having them obeyed. David Crawford as weary ranch hand Will Vanhorne wears his character and his costume with compelling authenticity. We like him instantly, even if he is going to hang Bob Hicks. I look forward to work by these four. It is good to see them onstage together.
Through the playwright's lens: The play lets us all down. The first act is too long by about 20 minutes and the dialogue is sometimes tedious. The local artists do everything possible with what they are given by the playwright. What do you expect from a cowboy play? Gunfire? A fistfight? You will find neither here, and this is not the director's nor the actors' fault. It is the playwright's fault.
If you see this show, see it for the characterizations, costumes, set and direction. They all serve the script worlds better than the script serves them.
Phil Grecian is a published playwright from Topeka whose work is performed internationally. He may be reached at [email protected]
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