And here, a group of successful comic actors (some of them very successful, around this town) crowd the stage at the beautiful Ivory Theatre, in James McLure’s 1984 Western update of John O’Keeffe’s rustic English comedy, from 1791.
Based on all the evidence, though, I have to say director Shaun Sheley may have put too much emphasis on accomplishing a long list of scene changes, in under two hours, at the expense of comedy itself. (I have not interviewed anyone from the cast, as I sometimes do, but the technical and performance evidence seems to bear me out.)
The scope of comic genius is narrowed (in a few cases, narrowed to laser-like intensity)—and yet at the same time, I’ve never seen actors move so quickly in changing barnyards into saloons on stage.
But it’s a problem that’s easily fixed. The actors should convey a breathless, out-of-control attitude that’s currently missing. Everything’s in place, but we need an impression that Wild Oats could all come crashing down at any second, with the slightest gust of wind. The actors simply have to stop giving a cow-pie, and start having the ingenious fun they are all capable of.
As it stands, cowboys and ranch heiresses and greedy old men come and go like clockwork, ready to enact each scene like a line of highly trained marksmen raising their rifles: striking all the right comic poses and attitudes, full of cornpone and cactus. And yet, somehow, it’s a show that wins only sympathetic applause and indulgent laughter, frequently missing the invisible bull’s eye of comedy.
The biggest, sure-fire exception to this complaint is Nicole Angeli, who seems to defy any negative criticism, here and in other outings as well. She is multifariously magnificent as Kate Thunder (an heiress, beguiled by a conniving priest). Her Kate is full of the same great comical twists and turns we adored in the likes of Madeline Kahn.
Yes, I said Madeline Kahn.
John Foughty is fine as the patriarch of the Thunder clan (sometimes he’s spectacular, here he’s just fine—or maybe he’s spectacular within the constraints of a fine role). And Michael Pierce is excellent as the prodigal son, bounced from West Point for his artistic ambitions. But most on stage merely exist within the constraints of melodrama, constraints which were probably meant to be subverted.
After the first ten minutes I ruefully set aside my trusty notepad and gave up trying to keep track of all the “backstory” of every character. It takes a while before you realize that all the personal histories being recited are just so much flotsam. Every actor delivers his backstory like Dusty or Lefty on A Prairie Home Companion, and it really means nothing in the end. So why not try to make each character’s “backstory” an individual comic statement? Or add a harmonica in the background, or exasperated groans, at least, after the third or fourth visit to www.ancestry.com
Erik Kuhn is pleasant as the handsome swain, who’s also Mr. Pierce’s pal in a traveling theater group, and seems destined to end up with Ms. Angeli. And Jamie Eros is perfect as the mysterious woman with a past, lyrical and forlorn and mysterious. And funny too, which (this late in the show) you may have forgotten was an option.
On the other hand, all this happened on a Sunday afternoon, after God only knows how many long tech-rehearsal nights and cast parties after the shows. I’ve been to great shows on a Friday night that (less than 48 hours later) had sagged horribly when I dragged a friend back for the Sunday matinee. And by “sagged horribly” I mean the actors in those past shows were all exhausted, or desperately hung-over (or both) by the end of a long opening weekend.
Here, they didn’t seem hung-over. That might have helped, in the final analysis: heightening the recklessness that was lacking on the first Sunday—in spite of all those quick, precise scene changes.
Through August 30, 2015 at the Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave. For more information visit www.stlshakespeare.org
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