Chaotic, Melodramatic, Western Musical Seeks an Audience that Can Keep Up

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Once Upon a Time 6X in the West (Photo: Andrew Tat)
Once Upon a Time 6X in the West (Photo: Andrew Tat)

I knew nothing walking into Once Upon a Time 6X in the West at the University of Washington  Jones Playhouse (through April 28; tickets) except that Artistic Director of On the Boards, Lane Czaplinski, was a “co-conceiver” of the piece. (They had me at Lane, as it were.) What followed was a performance that defies traditional norms of theatre while exploring the classic and new voices in performance theory and style.

The title actually says a lot. This a Western. It’s a musical. It’s going to be performed in a variety of ways. Sometimes it makes sense. Sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes, it makes a kind of sense the way that a child’s story kind of  makes sense even if it involves a lot of tangential information and subplots that distract from your black hat/white hat characters, and aliens.

In typical Western style, we are introduced to a hard-nosed criminal, El Gaucho (Patrick Baxter), the last man standing in a saloon fight gone wrong. He makes a choice to save the only other survivor — a baby girl. El Gaucho turns from the life of crime to raise her. But, alas alack, she’s kidnapped. (It happens.)

The years pass and the story continues with daughter Lil (immaculate Sylvia Kowalski) and papa trying to reunite. In the process Lil meets a slew of vagabonds and, of course, whores cause she’s a chick in the West. And there’s musical numbers. ‘Cause there are. The script alone is filled with melodrama and camp, which would make anyone with a soul happy enough, but director and writer Jeffrey Fracé  applies his own academic twist.

The story is broken into six acts (though they are all relatively short) and every act has a “style” or generator of a theatrical movement associated with it. There are well-known names like Peter Brook, Growtowski, The Wooster Group, and the absolutely amazing Gob Squad (which of course you saw at On The Boards a few months back because you were a smart, smart person).

These sections of storytelling shift between moving and purposefully melodramatic with long nods and nudge, nudges at their inspirations. Particular moment of note in the first act would be the Growtowski-intoning style in “Home in Babylon” and the overly articulated character movements especially for the Madam (Mary Hubert).

There’s also a Mabou-Mines (who I won’t pretend I know) section, which ended Act One and a Robert-Wilson (of Einstein on the Beach fame) section, which started Act Two. Their placement is a disservice to the story and therein lies the problem with Once Upon a Time 6X in the West. These creators, brilliant in their own right, do not apply well to a traditional, linear story structure. More than that, they just appeared to be less fun. When these acts occur, the whole audience appeared to go into a sleepy trance. It killed the momentum and mostly lost whatever story remained.

I’m guessing this lack of momentum is why they thankfully chose to end the show with back-to-back Wooster Group and Gob Squad/Ridiculous Theatrical Company acts. The energy shift on stage was enough to refocus the audience even if it was a rapey-scene that used the phrase “pig fuck” repeatedly.

However, the sigh of relief didn’t last long. Just like Gob Squad, they picked people out of the audience to act the roles in one of the last scenes. (I was suddenly very happy to be sitting in a difficult-to-reach area.) Unlike with Gob Squad, you are not eased into audience participation and the tension that came from many patrons trying to make themselves very small was nerve-wracking. Despite the odds, it worked even if it didn’t hit the same emotional tenor Gob Squad achieved.

But it’s in the final moments with video projections of Lil that you not only get to see Kowalski shine, but also find the heart of Once Upon a Time 6X in the West. This movie moment and the song “What’s After Goodbye” which followed were absolutely touching. There the play should have ended. But it didn’t. The real ending was muddled and unnecessary and long considering “What’s After Goodbye” sounded very much like a closing song.

The nice thing about university theatre productions is that the audience is usually on board for a spectacle they’d never see at a “traditional” theatre. Universities and colleges don’t have to worry about subscribers in the same way that non-profit theatres do. (I still hear patrons talk about walking out of the Sarah Kane play performed at ACT a few years ago, or canceling their subscriptions over “questionable artistic choices” for others.) Universities can take risks; so I’m pleased when they actually do instead of choosing another performance of Neil Simon or [insert some other irrelevant playwright here]

But university productions face a different question: Does it stand on its own past an academic lens? In the case of Once Upon a Time 6X in the West the answer is, enh. It’s unusual and interesting, but the tone of it is more like a grad student’s senior thesis in theory exploration rather than a compelling night of theatre. Though entertaining and even thought-provoking at times, its scattered historical trek through brilliant theatremakers does not always serve its story or the styles to which it pays homage. One is left with the impression that while the production tried to seek its own style through the exploration of others, somewhere it got drunk in the saloon and forgot to forge its own path in the wilderness.

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