The multiple personalities of How Shakespeare Won the West can perhaps be summed up in three words: Shakespeare square dances. The play, enjoying its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, tells the story of a band of actors headed west to entertain culture-starved prospectors; more precisely, the characters tell the tale, interrupting themselves to say, “he said,” and re-enacting earlier conversations for the benefit of both other characters on stage and the audience. There's a lot going on here: Shakespeare jokes; social commentary (on transgressions past and present); death; religious fanaticism; love quadrangles, and an acknowledged preposterously happy ending that rivals Hero's resurrection. Although at times there seems to be too much going on, the superb ensemble cast manages to keep the roller coaster on , and it's hard not to share their glee at the raucous conclusion.
At its most basic, How Shakespeare Won the West is a “hey, let's put on a show!” show. But when the starry-eyed troupe has to travel across the American continent and face the dangers lurking there in the 1840s, the situation turns serious very quickly. Before they hit the trail, though, the characters introduce themselves and explain how they all came together. Thomas Jefferson Calhoun (Will LeBow), a utility actor turned tavern owner, and his wife Alice (Mary Beth Fisher), a former ingenue who got too old to play an ingenue and had a baby instead, discover how much they both miss the stage when a mysterious stranger named Buck (Erik Lochtefeld) regales them with descriptions of the Wild West. This is an American West that Shakespeare scholars dream of—one in which hardened prospectors stand waist-deep in a creek all day panning for gold and making fun of the guy who can't complete the line, “If music be the food of love” with “play on.” Although Buck is most likely guilty of a little dramatic license, the program informs readers that American pioneers did, indeed, value their Shakespeare, and actors found eager audiences throughout the fledgling country.
Thomas and Alice cobble together a troupe of actors, later dubbed “Thomas Jefferson Calhoun Star Troupe.” They rescue George Demerest (Jon De Vries), a character actor who's been playing Shakespeare's tragedies with two sisters, ages nine and eleven. Edward and Ruth Oldfield (Jeremiah Kissel and Kelly Hutchinson), an English couple straight from playing “Dreary Lane” in London, are their utility actors; Ruth is quickly but quietly outed as a “whore” by their drunken leading man, Hank Daley (Chris Henry Coffey). He's been fired for sleeping with his producer's wife as revenge for not getting a raise. His wife, the beautiful Kate Denim (Susannah Schulman), still playing the ingenue, appears as they are about to head out, forgives him, and begs to come along. With Susan (Sarah Nealis), daughter of Thomas and Alice, and John Gough (Joe Tapper) the comic player rounding out the numbers, and with Buck as their guide, westward they go.
Once on the trail, the play veers rapidly into more serious material. Kate is so well-loved by everyone, including Susan, who had been promised the ingenue roles before Kate's arrival, that tragedy is transparently inevitable. Her presence has cured Hank of his drinking, she's a good cook, she does shirts—this grand actress isn't too good for anything. Soon, she's expecting a baby and the actors slow their progress across the plains to accommodate her condition. Her death and burial lead to an attack by Indians, who are fearful of the diseases carried by the white man. The chief lost his favorite daughter and many other family and tribe members to measles. In what is perhaps the most moving scene of the play, the actors deliver a command performance of King Lear, with Lear's searing howls over Cordelia's dead body moving the chief to understanding tears.
This respite is short-lived, however, as the playwright moves from damning past wrongs against Native Americans to an indictment of present-day religious fanaticism. The band of actors is broken up in the attack, and Buck is adopted by a couple whose beliefs forbid bodily contact between men and women—they simply wait for God to send them a child. Buck makes his escape while his new father goes on a shooting spree against a “liberal branch” of his church who allow singing at baptisms and funerals (but not not weddings). Slowly the group reassembles—John Gough has been masquerading as a preacher, since he played one once on stage and “there's a lot of money in religion.” Edward is rescued roadside after being beaten for “what he is”; a sign reading “pervert” hangs around his neck. Alice has spent her time following Thomas, who has become devoted to Ruth.
When the group finally arrives in California, they are not met by hordes of Shakespeare-reciting prospectors. Instead, they find themselves playing Richard III in a building that turns out to be a toilet. Then the play shifts again, abandoning social responsibility in favor of circumstances that, as Alice puts it, “come under the heading of 'will wonders never cease.'” The result is a ridiculously, deliriously happy ending. With these changes in tone and material, the play's structure mimics a fairy tale, or even Shakespeare himself: While the troupe is out in the wild, man's truest nature is revealed—the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the loves and the hates, and after passing through these trials, the worthy are rewarded, however improbably, for their bravery and survival.
The play, complicated as it is, could have been a disaster in the wrong hands, but this cast is superb, and visiting director Jonathan Moscone (Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda, CA) orchestrates well. Since the playwright allows the characters to address the audience directly, rapport is built quickly and strongly. It's impossible not to root for them as they go off to chase their collective dream, and their performances never falter. It is rare to find an ensemble cast that does not have a weak link. The set is for the most part sparse, with a doorway and small stage on the left and right constructed of wood in the recognizable “American West” motif.
How Shakespeare Won the West has a little of everything, including many genuinely funny moments, even amidst the horrors the characters face, even as they veer from shock to dismay to relief. At first, not knowing the basis of truth behind the tale, it may be hard not to wonder if the evocation of the Bard is not a mere device. Could the actors not have made the journey without him? Perhaps, but just as likely not. Shakespeare's plays, as this play argues in its transcendent King Lear scene, are so universal, yield so great a pull, that they render almost anything believable. Actors going west through danger and death to perform Restoration comedy? No. But braving violence and lost love to perform Shakespeare? Of course. And can I come too? Ultimately, this play echoes the Bard in many ways, not least of which: all's well that ends well.
How Shakespeare Won the West is playing at the Huntington Theatre Company on the Mainstage through October 5, 2008. For tickets or more information, contact the box office at (617) 266-0800 or visit them online at huntingtontheatre.org