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Existential Vaudeville


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American Blues Theatre

at the Goodman Theatre Studio

I read the author's note and I wasn't impressed. Rick Cleveland was saying the same things everybody always says about westerns. There was the nostalgic bit about how he'd spent his childhood "holed up inside dark movie theaters," watching cowboys go "thundering across the plains." And the pedantic bit about how the western's "the closest we come in this country to having a great American story myth." There was the elegiac bit about a disappearing way of life. And the awshucks summing up, where he 'lows as how "you could say that Bad Moon is a homage, of sorts, to all my favorite western films and novels."

If the play's as conventional as what's in this note, I told myself, it had at least better have a decent shoot-out.

And it did. The shoot-out was fine. More than fine, actually. It was existential vaudeville, ingenious and absurd.

So, surprisingly, was the play. Cleveland may write banal program essays about the west, but his script on the subject is a sharp, playful satire, full of reverence and subversion and built around a narrative trick that's, aw shucks, jes' kinda brilliant.

Bad Moon uses the western as a way of making a point about history, to wit: that history's invented, not reported, and that the privilege of inventing a historical event doesn't necessarily go to the participants but to whoever does the best job of positioning himself after the fact. That is, to whoever tells the tale that sticks.

This isn't news, of course. Augustus had his Virgil and Oliver North had his shredder, and both did their best to promote their version of the facts. But Cleveland gives this familiar process a vivid theatrical spin in showing us how the death of a famous desperado sets up a struggle for control of his legend.

The desperado in question is Coleman Lewis, a veteran train and bank robber famous for his bloody MO. Cole's killing days would appear to be over as the play opens. A botched bank job's landed him and his old pal, Doc Spites, in jail in a podunk South Dakota town called Bad Moon. The two of them are scheduled to hang tomorrow.

Cole and Doc manage to break out, though, thanks to Lester Biddles--a crazy young loner a la David Chapman, who's read about Cole's exploits, in wild west tabloids and decided to emulate him. Hostages in tow, Cole and Doc stop to rest in a deserted barn--where they engage in the aforesaid ingenious and absurd shoot-out and end up dead. . . . thereby literally setting the stage for the real shoot-out: the one between the survivors of Cole's last stand, each with his own version of the event and his own reasons for promoting that version as history.

Cleveland creates a narrative hall of mirrors, placing version within version, telling within telling. Sitting in his Bad Moon jail cell, Cole offers a view of himself as a combination Robin Hood and Dead End Kid, even as his monumentally alienated former wife, Zee, portrays him as a beguiling sadist, and crazy Lester riffs his vision of him as a sort of outlaw Ubermensch committing acts of romantic violence. Short vignettes inserted between scenes, meanwhile, turn the night's events into melodrama even as they're unfolding. And the whole thing's framed by commentary from Bad Moon deputy sheriff Clell Hocker.

By the time he's finished, Cleveland's built an environment so steeped in mythos, fantasy, archetypes, stock types, cliches, contending realities, psychosis, and plain lies that we don't know what to believe. And that's the idea. Cleveland's ultimate homage to the west is his recognition of its elusiveness. Its way of working on the mind.

William Payne's direction works on the mind, too, telling it to laugh most of the time, be touched some of the time, and stay impressed from beginning to end. With the help of fight choreographer Michael Sokoloff, he turns that famous shootout into a hilarious ballet of futility, and holds to a pace you might call leisurely breakneck.

Ed Blatchford throws out endless surprises as Lester, moving from a scruffy gee-whizzness to a Shepardian malevolence to smooth cunning with perfect coherence. Ned Schmidtke's Cole is the perfect chameleon, able to absorb and reflect back everybody's vision of him. Dennis Cockrum makes Doc a lovable monster, Larry Brandenburg gives the sheriff a solidity just tinged with existential horror, Jim Learning ingratiates himself before pulling the chain as false-bottomed Clell, and Kate Buddeke evokes a weary pain as Zee. James Schneider's piano playing is marvelously tinny, and Mary Badger's lights help push back the walls in a limited playing area.

All in all, it's a big improvement on the author's note.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin.

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