Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Westward, no!

Honey, do you think there's a real play out there? Susannah Schulman ponders How Shakespeare Won the West.

Now I'm not going to say "I told you so." I'm just going to say "ITYS." (That's a cool bit of text for all you non-celltards.) NOT saying ITYS, however, just might kill me after seeing How Shakespeare Won the West, the latest superbly pointless "new play" produced by the Huntington. I suppose I should be purring with schadenfreude - after all, I've been saying for weeks (no, months) that the Huntington should be doing actual new plays by actual talented playwrights rather than only those with connections in the development mill - and here, for his debut production, incoming Artistic Director Peter DuBois offers a show even more derivative than Mauritius, Theresa Rebeck's rewrite of Mamet (and predictably, Louise Kennedy loves this one, too).

Still, I'm hardly happy - I'm just slightly dazed, with a slowly fading "Uh - what just happened?" look on my face. On second thought, I know what just happened - I've seen it before! This time it's Nicholas Nickleby that's being recycled as a "new" play (playwright Richard Nelson hails from the RSC, which produced Nickleby, and director Jonathan Moscone even helmed a production of it in California). The only problem is that Moscone ain't Trevor Nunn, and Nelson sure as hell ain't Charles Dickens.

But never mind that; this former teacher of playwriting (at Yale, no less) still borrows most of the narrative techniques of that great production, and even rips off its famous first-act climax. Once again, the company offers a lot of choral exposition, as if there were yards of Dickensian prose to get through (which there's not), before getting to one classic melodramatic scene after another (which there's not). What's scary is that Nelson and Moscone (and the talented cast) get their pasted-together theatrical creature to walk, some of the time. "Development" can't provide inspiration, or meaning (or even a theme, apparently), but given a few quirky factoids, a playwright can crank out scenes, the developers can cry "There's a play in them thar hills!" and then everybody else can diligently fill in two hours with cute stage business like - well, nobody's business.

For the record, the pretext of How Shakespeare is the amusing ubiquity of Shakespeare during the Gold Rush years. Yes, child stars played Richard III in the nineteenth century, and that too-gay Lincoln had a woody for the Bard, and the father of his assassin, Edwin Booth, toured California performing Shakespearean tragedy (that's the happy family in Julius Caesar - Johnny's at left, as Marc Antony, not Brutus). Maybe there is a play in them thar hills, but if so, it would be a lot darker and murderous than How Shakespeare (After all, surely the most important intersection between Shakespearean actors and America occurred in the Ford Theatre!)

But whenever any tragic clouds lour at the Huntington, glorious summer is only a line or two away (by the bizarrely meta finale, the dead have even risen - and given birth!). Nelson's innocents abroad (yes, Mark Twain - or at least Huckleberry Finn - is also banging around in the mix) are a gaggle of wannabe Shakespeareans who, hearing that the West is hungry for tragedy, head for the frontier, where they find quite a bit of it themselves - which of course these happy few triumph over, as this is Amurrica. You sense - or rather you want to feel - that the playwright intends all this as an ironic gloss on our national optimism, not to mention our myth of manifest destiny (after all, Shakespeare coincided with a brutally expansive moment in British history, too). There are even a few scenes (such as an attack on Native Americans who, like everybody else, know true greatness when they see it and have a jones for Lear) when Shakespeare gives off hints of thematic, and even formal, ambition. But then the Huntington starts selling it, babe, and we're back in a warm bath of middlebrow swill, where we can glory in Shakespeare without having to actually sit through him.

It's not, of course, the actors' fault they're stuck in what was supposed to be the dawn of a new era at the Huntington (but instead represents continued pandering to its base). Still, it's almost hard not to resent their very facility as the show goes on, and on, and they hit their beats and get their laughs and in general keep the false bloom on this phony rose. (You can't imagine how good they'd be in a real play!) For the record, local heroes Will Lebow and Jeremiah Kissel demonstrate once again why they're local heroes (Kissel in particular slices the ham with consummate skill in a rogue's gallery of supporting roles). There's also strong work from Mary Beth Fisher, Kelly Hutchinson, and Susannah Schulman - although there's not really a single gap in this winning ensemble. What they're winning with How Shakespeare Won the West, however, remains a mystery.


  1. Of the three recent "Inspired by Shakespeare" plays which have been performed in the Boston area in the last year, I thought How Shakespeare Won the West was the most likable when compared to the tedious, endless (nearly three hours!) of Cardenio and the all-but-unwatchable English Channel at Suffolk last fall. Interestingly enough, both of these aforementioned plays are getting runs in NYC- Cardenio at the Public and The English Channel at the Atlantic respectively, so we'll see how they fare there or if they get any substantial changes between productions. They sure could use the work.

    ...but even given that it was the most likable of these three isn't saying much. Boy was this lousy! It reminded me of the kind of fare a summer stock company would toss off in between productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and an R&H musical; something written by the Artistic Director's less talented wife. Or girlfriend. Or whatever. Not the work of a justly praised and talented playwright like Nelson. All of the historical references and wordplay aside, it doesn't even hold a candle to a bad production of a subpar play by Stoppard.

    What's scary, as you noted, is that the well-rendered production almost made the mess on stage watchable at times- the cast was great (poor doubly-damned Will LeBow- he was in Cardenio also) and it was directed about as well as you can direct a hopelessly shallow and derivative play. The actors all jumped through every hoop they were asked to, and almost made us care about the cardboard characters they were portraying. But plot? Drama? Pathos? Motivation? Genuine emotion? All missing in the place of self-referential jokes and crocodile tears for dear, dead babies and their lovable (also dead) mother. And endless, didactic, pointless narration. At times the journey across the plains felt like an episode of George Lucas's execrable "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" with the characters in the play bound to bump into every notable historic figure of the time no matter how strained the possibility of that ever really occurring might be.

    It's really all too bad, since the themes and history behind the play really are interesting ones and perhaps in the hands of another playwright, or with another premise there might be something workable here. But if this is what the new leadership of the Huntington considers an "Event" play (DuBois in the Phoenix was quoted about putting together a season and play selection that “I tend to think of programming as events”) then I'm baffled by what he would consider a truly landmark production.

  2. I gather there is now a kind of ongoing local debate about our three recent Shakespeare vanity projects, and you seem to nail the general consensus - "English Channel" was the worst, but actually less tedious than "Cardenio," while "How Shakespeare Won the West" may have been mediocre and vapid, but was at least watchable. I'd be surprised if either "Channel" or "Cardenio" changed much en route to New York, simply because, as I've pointed out before, New York often has lower standards than Boston, particularly when a celebrity (even a very minor one like Brustein) is attached to a project.

    The real story here, as again you point out, is what "How Shakespeare, Etc." says about the judgment of Peter DuBois. And I'm afraid the news isn't good. "How did he ever pick that?" is generally what I'm hearing, and I have to admit it's a very good question, and doesn't bode well for the rest of the season, which is almost entirely new work.