For the first show of his inaugural season at the Huntington Theatre, rookie Artistic Director, Peter DuBois has elected to produce a world premiere by veteran playwright Richard Nelson. As someone who has read all of Mr. Nelson's ouvre, I find this former Yale playwrighting teacher to be either too academic, too historiographic, or simply too dull for most mainstream theatre. How Shakespeare Won the West is no exception. Think of it as Quilters meets The Grapes of Wrath with the melodrama of telenovellas and you have the closest description I can think of for this patchwork, ragtag show.
Mr. Nelson (author of Two Shakespearian Actors and Some Americans Abroad, see previous entry) loves to use the stage as a platform for theatre history lectures culled from his former profession. Just as in Two Shakespearian Actors where he attempts to dramatize the dual that fueled the Astor Place Riots, this play is also "based upon a true story." Like a miniseries on Lifetime television, his dramatizations are two-dimensional and melodramatic giving an unpleasant spin on the genre that has become known as documentary theatre. As we have seen, the best work of this genre (e.g. Anna Deveare Smith, currently performing at the A.R.T.) has the power to use theatre as an agent for healing, for education, for change. Mr. Nelson's work, on the other hand, seems to institutionalize and ghetto-ize theatre into the genre of theatre-for-people-who-do-it. Academics, scholars, and theatre history teachers will no doubt find the morsels of history peppering the script fascinating, but those looking for an entertaining evening of theatre will no doubt be in-line for tickets to Follies at the Lyric Stage quicker than you can say "I'm still here."
The show follows a motley band of community theatre actors in 1848 from a bar in New York (called "The Bard") into the Wild West meeting all the trials and travails that you read about in your 4th grade history lessons or learned playing the old Oregon Trail computer game. Along the way, they encounter Indians, the black hills of the Dakotas, winter climates, and drunken settlers looking for "gold in dem dere hills." The themes are so cliche, they dare need repeating, much less dramatizing. Taking a lesson from Forrest Gump, the playwright dares to extend our disbelief including an introduction to Buffalo Bill and the invention of snow-skiing. Add into this the obligatory romantic triangles, death, and gay-bashing and you have a cookie-cutter format for a third-rate Broadway musical... without the orchestra.
There is a joke about Huntington shows that when you can't think of anything nice to say, compliment the set. Unfortunately, the stunning, over-produced scenery for this show is too busy being chewed by the actors to warrant much mention except that it seems nice when you enter the theatre. An ensemble cast feels like the most unprofessional cast of actors recently assembled on the Huntington Stage. The main two exceptions are Boston-native Jeremiah Kissel, whose over-the-top role as a confirmed bachelor allow for a deserving amount of well-delivered chicanery garnering well-deserved laughs. Susannah Shulman who plays Kate, the true actress and star of the traveling band of ruffians, gives an honest and heart-rending performance beyond the limitations of the script. I also applaud the character work of ___________ whose craft in playing everyone from P.T. Barnum to Buffalo Bill deserves applause.
What disturbs me most about this production is that this is what Peter DuBois chose as his first show in his inaugural season at the Huntington. As I watched the show, I tried to assess the decision in choosing this show over so many others and weighing the politics of thie choice. First of all, it's a world premiere. I guarantee that there are better unproduced shows out there worth producing. Richard Nelson is a major playwright. However, his work has not been widely received (and for good reason) and there are better established playwrights who would love the opportunity to premiere on the Huntington Stage. It's a show about theatre. Then revive one of the many backstage plays that serve the same function such as Jeffrey Hatcher's brilliant Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Quilters, The Grapes of Wrath, Compleat Works of Shakespeare Abridged, et al. What was Mr. DuBois thinking in choosing this as his first show? To me, it seems an attempt at a safe yet daring, artsy yet popular political choice. But the fact of the matter is, it's a bad play and any artistic director worth his merit should have seen that in reading the script. The winds of change are blowing in America and at the Huntington. We'll see if Mr. DuBois is a leader into tomorrow or, as this show displays, a step backward for the Boston theatre community.