This ‘Shakespeare’ Comes Up a Draw
By IRIS FANGER
If you check your expectations with the usher, the way that cowboys checked their guns at the doors of the frontier saloons, you might have fun at the Huntington Theatre season opener: Richard Nelson’s wild spectacle of a show, “How Shakespeare Won The West.”
It was quite a coup for the new artistic director Peter DuBois, to snag a world premiere for his introduction to Boston audiences, especially one by Nelson, an American who usually launches his plays at such prestigious London houses as the Royal National Theatre. However, sometimes it’s best to be careful what you wish for.
“How Shakespeare Won The West” is a collage of Americana, pasted in a shaky frame. Elements of a John Wayne movie, some characters out of the theater history books, and the chronology of a travelogue are intertwined, along with scraps of the comic and the tragic. Like the far-flung plays of the Bard, this one covers much territory, but not so deftly.
The time is mid-19th century when the California Gold Rush spurred a westward exodus. The plot hinges on the dreams of two former actors, Thomas Jefferson Calhoun and his wife, Alice, who become fired up by rumors of fortunes to be made by bringing Shakespeare to the culture-starved miners of the west. They assemble a company, set off on the journey, and thousand of miles, adventures, and adversity later, reach the promised land, all in an intermission-less 90 minutes.
Along the way, they encounter a variety of outsized American personalities, including an Illinois lawyer named Abe quoting Shakespeare; Buffalo Bill who speaks the Indians’ language; and the Bateman sisters, child actors who in real life did travel to perform their versions of the Shakespearean plays. Whether or not they were as bratty as this pair (Susan Calhoun and Susan Shulman who double as the ingenue and star actress of the Calhoun troupe), their brief appearance feeds into countless backstage legends about kids on stage.
Nelson, fondly remembered in these parts for the Huntington production of his gem of a memory play, “James Joyce’s The Dead, ” tells the story chiefly by means of narration, having the actors drop out of character to explain the various incidents that befall the hapless company. Problem is, there’s too much talking and not enough showing of important scenes that presumably happen off stage. I was disappointed that the moving vignette about the Indian Chief who identifies with King Lear despite the language barrier was not acted in full rather than in shadow play behind a curtain, except at its end.
Happily, and as is customary at the Huntington, the actors are first-rate and most appealing, even though sometimes – given the dim lighting and multiple roles assigned to the 11-member troupe – it’s difficult to discern who is speaking and as whom. The sonorous- voiced Will LeBow as Calhoun and the ebullient Jeremy Kissel as Edward Oldfield, the utility actor who has given himself both an English accent and resume, represent the local community. Newcomers Hank Daley and Schulman as the husband-and-wife star actor team are especially heart-rending in personifying the tribulations of the trail.
Director Jonathan Moscone has wrestled the material mightily to get this show on the road, with mixed results, although the integration of traditional music – often with other lyrics – helps set the mood and vary the texture of the production. Antje Ellermann has designed the utilitarian scenery; Laurie Churba Kohn has contributed costumes that enhance the bare-bones setting.
It’s easy to see how Nelson, a playwright since the early 1980s, was entranced by the possibilities of staging the saga of theater people heading west. The history books are filled with folks like the child actress Lotta Crabtree, who danced on tables while the miners flung sacks of gold-dust at her feet and Lola Montez , the mysterious seducer, whose lives were more thrilling than fiction. Theater buffs and American history addicts will no doubt enjoy the lively stage proceedings but one might hope that Nelson heads back to his desk for another draft.
Originally published by By IRIS FANGER, For The Patriot Ledger.
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