Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kid stuff: The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid

Posted By on Tue, May 31, 2011 at 11:55 AM

It’s a touchy business messing around with our legends in America, where we cherish our villains as much as our heroes. Concocting alternate histories is a popular sport nevertheless, targeting with especial gusto those public figures who leave us sensationally: JFK, Elvis and Osama, for example. The speed at which people were saying Bin Laden lives – seemingly while the Prez was announcing his death – was particularly impressive.

Before he more famously messed with history in A Walk in the Woods (1988) and Cobb (1989), Lee Blessing wrote the play he now calls The Authentic Life of Billy The Kid, currently running at Tate Hall, upstairs from the Halton Theater on the CP campus. The playwright not only gives The Kid an afterlife, bringing him back to New Mexico 27 years after he was gunned down, he meticulously deconstructs the whole Wild Western mythmaking process. The title of Blessing’s play is exactly the same as the book Sheriff Pat Garrett wrote after killing Billy, partly to cash in on his celebrity and partly to refute the evidence that his adversary was unarmed.

Ah, but Blessing knows that Garrett wasn’t the true author of his book, so the Sheriff’s ghostwriter, Ash Upson, becomes the engine that drives his non-authenticated plot. Upson finds Garrett in bad financial straits – for he truly did squander his chances for fame, wealth and glory in his later years – and proposes that the old Sheriff go on tour and re-enact his famous showdown with The Kid. To make it all the more believable, Ash has The Kid – or a brash imposter – waiting outside Garrett’s shambling ranch house.

Garrett, who knows his ghostwriter better than anyone as a bald-faced liar, can only be amazed by Ash’s renewed audacity. Just how viable is a scheme that involves a re-enactment of a killing when the legendary victim is standing there right before our eyes? Ash assures him that a credulous, adoring public will effortlessly glide over such pesky improbabilities.

Blessing very likely takes the scribbling charlatan’s claims seriously – after all, he’s basically running the same scam on us in his drama. With a stolen title!

Kevin A. Campbell’s wheedling persistence as Upson, a deft mix of desperation and cunning, is probably the best part of this maiden effort by Next Stage Charlotte. But it’s hard to resist Next Stage founder James Duke as a preternaturally debauched and broken-down Pat Garrett. When the alcoholic has-been reasons that everything would be so much more convenient if, real or not, he just shot this upstart Billy, Duke’s nonchalant cold-bloodedness is perfect.

The biggest mistake Marilyn Carter makes is casting Brad Tarr as Billy. Historically speaking, a short and slender actor like Tarr is a bullseye for portraying the gunslinger. But there should be charm and charisma factors in the reckoning. Tarr was implicated late last summer in The Busy World Is Hushed, a crisis-in-faith yawner down in Rock Hill that began with Tarr submitting to the trial of having porcupine quills removed from his calf. I’m not sure that I’ve seen the look of wincing pain and annoyance vanish entirely from his face since then. It works well enough here for Billy’s justifiable paranoia toward Garrett but not for much else.

On the other hand, we get stellar work from Glenn Hutchinson as Jim Miller, a neighboring rancher who’s planning to close a deal on Garrett’s property the following morning. Thanks in part to Jamey Varnadore’s costume design, Hutchinson managed to appear deferential toward the great Western heroes and yet vaguely dangerous throughout his visit. Switching the name of the true-life landowner who was to buy from Garrett on the following day when he was killed, Blessing plays with history one last time, possibly adding another layer of pretense to his scenario.

The Tate, with its columnar entrance, feels more like a lecture hall than a fringe theater. But Duke, CP’s go-to set designer, aims for a black-box look, with nothing other than plush curtains for the walls of his set, and furnishings – bed, fireplace, bar, and table – to evoke the ranch. It’s more of an off-Broadway look than I can recall seeing at any CP theatrical over the past 24 years, and it’s an ambiance I think we should encounter more often over yonder.

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