THE BASICS: THE AUTHENTIC LIFE OF BILLY THE KID, a very early (1975) play by Lee Blessing directed by Scott Behrend, starring Daniel Greer, Peter Palmisano, David Mitchell, and Patrick Cameron opened on September 12 and runs through October 6, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 at Road Less Traveled Theater, 456 Main Street (629-3069). www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org Smallish but full-service bar, remodeled classy lounge area with more room. RUNTIME: a little under 2 hours with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The notorious old west outlaw known as “Billy the Kid” (1859-1881) was said to have shot 21 men with his six-gun, one for each of his 21 young years. His intended 22nd victim was Sheriff Pat Garrett, but the tables were turned, and Garrett became famous as “the man who shot Billy the Kid.” We know about this primarily from an actual 1882 book ghost written under Garrett’s name by a journalist named Marshal Ashmun “Ash” Upson. Now, the play opens 26 years later inside Garrett’s modest cabin on his ranch near Las Cruces, New Mexico. It’s 1908, and “Ash” (Peter Palmisano) has returned to Pat Garrett (Daniel Greer) with a money-making promotional scheme to put on a sort of “wild west” show that will recreate the fateful moment when Garrett shot “the kid” (Dave Mitchell). In the midst of the negotiations, a mysterious stranger arrives named Jim P. Miller (Patrick Cameron) who seems overly curious about all the parties involved.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The play, THE AUTHENTIC LIFE OF BILLY THE KID, began as a student work inspired in part by the song “Billy the Kid” as sung by Ry Cooder on his 1972 album “Into the Purple Valley” including the verse “Fair Mexican maidens play guitars and sing / Songs about Billy their boy bandit king / Before his young manhood had reached its sad end / He’d a notch on his pistol for twenty-one men.”
While BILLY did win the 1979 National New Play Award at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, it apparently has not had any major productions since then. Frankly, the script needs work.
This is in sharp contrast to one of Blessing’s much more famous plays, A WALK IN THE WOODS, which premiered on Broadway, ran for 137 performances and starred Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston as two nuclear arms negotiators. That play was nominated for the 1988 Tony Award, was a finalist for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and was nominated for the BBC Play of the Year. THE AUTHENTIC LIFE OF BILLY THE KID is NOT that play, but I mention it here for two reasons.
First, since you may know WALK, you’ll appreciate Blessing’s interest in weaving together fact and myth. The question of which is more “real?” is a taproot for Blessing. If you like musing on philosophical questions like that, as they do at RLTP, you’ll like BILLY THE KID. And second, by the time he got to writing WALK, playwright Blessing had learned to focus more on a play’s arc, and not get distracted with long-winded historical anecdotes. In 2014, with many more plays under his belt, Blessing is quoted as saying: “You can put way too much research into a play. A play isn’t a treatise.”*
But, unfortunately, BILLY THE KID feels that way at times. Blessing obviously did lots of research and wanted to include it all. I almost expected “Ash” to nail a bedsheet to the wall and start projecting some PowerPoint slides. That granular detail and the way in which it’s revealed slows the action considerably, especially in the first act, where it takes quite awhile for “Ash” to get to the point. Personally, I can sympathize. For example, in this review, you may be wondering “do we really need to know about Ry Cooder or the album title “Into the Purple Valley?” To me it’s an interesting detail, but it does delay getting to the point of this review, which is:
THE AUTHENTIC LIFE OF BILLY THE KID pulls together the great power and impressive depth of talent of Road Less Traveled Productions and there isn’t a theatrical element I would change except… the play.
I can see why Executive/Artistic Director Scott Behrend was attracted to BILLY THE KID, though. It touches upon a number of philosophical issues that have informed many of their recent productions, including time shifting, the question of what is “reality” versus perception, and the unreliability of memory, as seen recently in such plays as THE ILLUSION, THE NETHER, or DISGRACED each of which I adored. I like philosophical questions. But I didn’t like this script. And I’m not necessarily opposed to a barrage of words, either. I found a recent student performance of COPENHAGEN, the play by Michael Frayn based on a meeting between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, as directed by RLTP Ensemble Member Katie Mallinson, fascinating.
But, let me be like Marc Antony who said that he came to bury Caesar, not to praise him, and then did precisely that. So, now, lend me your ears while I show some love for this production. First off, there’s the impressive cast of RLTP regulars Peter Palmisano, Dave Mitchell, and Patrick Cameron for whom this is far from their first rodeo. I’ve always loved watching these guys just melt into their roles. And while Dan Greer, who plays Pat Garrett, might be an RLTP newcomer, he has a long history himself of playing constables and cops and stays on that knife-edge of wariness and world-weariness. And one minor, but appreciated detail, was when these guys drink whiskey straight, even though it’s stage whiskey, they grimace as it burns on the way down. 999 out of a thousand actors get that wrong. Not here.
At RLTP they sweat the details. The set design, as always by Dyan Burlingame, is picture perfect, with the ropes and cast iron skillets and laundry hanging to dry inside the log cabin and little touches such as the fire which flares up slightly when a piece of kindling is tossed in the fireplace or the cigars which looked very realistic (Props Master Diane Almeter Jones). The Sound and Light design by Katie Menke and John Rickus were very impressive during the thunder and lightning storms. The only disappointment was the sound of the six guns. The fights choreographed by Adam Rath, the costumes by Jenna Damberger, and the dialects as coached by Jennifer Toohey all came across as very authentic.
Sadly, for all of that, the authenticity, the behind the scenes work, the on-stage talent, I don’t think the play was worth all that investment.
UP NEXT: The very intense play by Jon Elston called INTERROGATON ROOM (which won the 2003-2004 Artie Award for Best New Play) returns November 1-24 as “RLTP Ensemble Member and Resident Playwright Jon Elston revisits his sharp, fast-paced crime drama with fresh insight from our contemporary vantage in this timely revival of his Artie Award winning play.”
*Quote from Lee Blessing in an interview with Philip Zwerdling 12/6/2014 as reported in Zwerling’s book The Theater of Lee Blessing.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!