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Stage review

'Shakespeare' strikes gold

Huntington starts strong with tale of Wild West

'How Shakespeare Won the West' Chris Henry Coffey and Susannah Schulman play New York actors roughing it in a scheme to find fame in the Huntington Theatre Company's "How Shakespeare Won the West." (T. Charles Erickson )
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / September 16, 2008
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Engaging, energetic, amusing, and clearly in love with the art of telling stories onstage, Richard Nelson's "How Shakespeare Won the West" makes an auspicious opening for the Huntington Theatre Company's first season under its new artistic director, Peter DuBois.

Nelson's new play also tends to ramble, sometimes veers jarringly between comedy and tragedy, and generally feels a little shaggy around the edges. But it's a play about actors and the Wild West, and it's a world premiere. Perhaps a little shagginess comes with the territory.

Certainly the mix of laughter and tears feels right for the ridiculous but touching tale of a ragtag group of theatrical journeymen and has-beens who, unable to find work in New York and hearing rumors of Gold Rush riches, form a stage troupe and head west. The opening scenes in New York, which have the actors gathering in a tavern and trading stories of shows they've endured - from playing third banana to a pair of screeching child stars doing bad Shakespeare to carrying out schemes for P.T. Barnum - are both hilarious and based, more or less loosely, in historical fact.

Funny as they are, they also make it clear just why these people are desperate enough to strike off into the wilderness, leaving everything but their vague dreams of stardom behind. The New York theater scene of the 1840s that Nelson paints so vividly is a free-for-all, and perhaps no less a wilderness than the one they're headed to. Besides, the actors have heard that the California miners - a more educated group than you'd expect - are starved for Shakespeare, another surprising but fact-based piece of the plot.

These early scenes introduce the play's central structural device, which is a key part of its charm. All the characters take turns serving as narrator, sometimes interrupting or correcting or embellishing each other's stories, and as one recalls an incident, others act it out. This makes for a vivid and truly playful atmosphere onstage, one that celebrates the imaginative power of acting by - well, by acting.

What's most rewarding about "How Shakespeare Won the West" is the lively collaborative spirit that this structure creates. We're getting to know Nelson's characters through their stories, which they're at once telling and living. An added pleasure is the interweaving of scenes from Shakespeare, played both for directly dramatic and for hilariously parodic effect. The characters, like their creator, draw inspiration and vitality from Shakespeare's language and stories, and they share that energy with their audiences - both the imagined miners onstage and the living people sitting in the Huntington's seats.

Occasionally the story meanders a little too far off the tracks, as in a clever but too-extended encounter with a theater-loving Illinois lawyer named Abe, or an interlude after a tragic battle between settlers and Native Americans when one actor finds himself stuck in a fundamentalist sect. That scene feels more like a setup for taking shots at the modern religious right than an integral part of the story, and its length throws the generally admirable balance among the many characters' stories out of whack.

But the play's pleasures far outweigh its flaws. There's a lovely moment, abetted by the spacious and evocative rough-timbered design of Antje Ellermann's set and the mood-setting lighting by Japhy Weideman, when the actors settle down around their campfires: just a couple of trapdoors in the stage, flung open to let the lights below cast a warm orange gleam on their faces. It's simple, it's evocative, and it's the essence of theatrical storytelling.

So, too, is the troupe's performance of "King Lear" for a Native American chief. As we watch the actors in silhouette, we hear how powerfully the play affected the chief, despite the barriers of language and culture. Here Nelson flirts with sentimentality, but the simplicity and power of director Jonathan Moscone's staging keeps the moment feeling true.

Throughout, in fact, Moscone's firm sense of balance mostly keeps the play on track; only in a foreshadowed and harrowing death scene does it seem to skip out of its complex but essentially comedic groove. And the actors he's assembled - from Boston favorites Will LeBow and Jeremiah Kissel to less familiar but equally talented players such as Mary Beth Fisher and Susannah Schulman - create remarkably individual characters even as they coalesce smoothly into an ensemble.

Shakespeare and the Gold Rush may seem an unlikely mix, and Nelson may not always get them to mesh perfectly. But his sprawling, lively tale of wild spirits in the Wild West feels fresh, stimulating, and American in the best way. It's not flawless, but it's a fine place to start.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

How Shakespeare Won the West

Play by Richard Nelson

Directed by: Jonathan Moscone. Set, Antje Ellermann. Costumes, Laurie Churba Kohn. Lights, Japhy Weideman. Music and sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Presented by: Huntington Theatre Company

At: Boston University Theatre, through Oct. 5. Tickets, $20-82.50, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org

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