Once Upon a Time 6x in the West: Playfully Experimental

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Axiomatic in the drama world is that most people with baccalaureates in theater, and indeed even MFA degrees, will not go on to be actors of national renown. The statistics are against them. It is one of the more depressing qualities of student drama training to ignore this reality and attempt to train students for “professional careers”–by which I mean largely banal and staid roles they believe will pay the bills.

Myself, I have never believed that to be the important function of acting programs. On the contrary: Student drama can afford to dare, so it should. Young actors have nothing to prove and everything to learn. They also stand to gain immeasurably by stretching themselves with material that commercial theaters would not touch. But equally important is that their audiences also stand to gain in this process, and for the exact same reasons. Student drama can enlighten the viewers, too, and bring them out of their comfort zone into the realm of actual magic.

Fortunately the UW School of Drama has in their department Jeffrey Fracé, who delights in devising plays that pursue this ideal. Mr. Fracé’s productions almost always invoke a controlled chaos. One would never accuse him of conservatism; on the contrary, he seems to thrive in all his projects on making his actors take risks and believing that the audience will simply go along with it. It is to his credit that they largely do.

In his latest project, Once Upon a Time 6x in the West, he shares a cooperative duty for “concept” with Lane Czaplinski of On the Boards. Given the reputations of Messrs. Czaplinski and Fracé, one can easily assume that the results will tend toward avant-gardism and of course they do.

The piece is really a short essay in the history of contemporary stagecraft. Where James Roose-Evans’ book Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Peter Brook leaves off in the 1970s, Once Upon a Time 6x in the West picks up there. The six sections of the piece intentionally evoke six distinct styles of experimental theater, associated primarily with six different groups, in roughly chronological order of their directors.

Photo by Andrew Tat.

Photo by Andrew Tat.

The joy of this is that it gives the student actors a chance to connect with history with which they might not be familiar, or with which they are only familiar in books. The entire production becomes then a playground in the best possible way. As Emilie says in the play, most great decisions begin by saying “What the hell?” and this incredibly talented group of young actors throw themselves into the play with great relish.

I have said good things about most of the members in this cast before and I see no reason not to say even more good things about them now. The women here are very fine. I am deeply impressed with Hannah Ruwe’s growth as an actor over the past year. Her voice has always been impressive but here Mr. Fracé has forced her to work on her physical style as well and the result is a revelation. In the past I have been of two minds about Mary Hubert’s performances, but here she is quite solid and seems to have overcome the lack of subtlety I have witnessed from her in the past. Good on her, certainly. Sylvia Kowalski, too, is quite brilliant here for such a young actor. I look forward to watching her again, and also Rosalind Phelps, who is beginning to show some promise that was only barely visible in Landscape of the Body earlier.

The male actors here are also quite good. I was impressed especially with Ben Phillips, particularly in the Robert Wilson section that opens the second half of the play. Patrick Baxter does well as El Gaucho, given the limits of his character, and Christopher James Dingle proves himself to be versatile across multiple roles. Spencer Hamp remains one of my favorite young actors in town, and it is nice to see him play against type here as the preacher while still showing his dedication to craftsmanship.

On the directorial front, the piece is largely enjoyable. The line between pastiche and tribute is very fine indeed, and Once Upon a Time 6x in the West crosses that line freely back and forth. Consequently, some things work better than others and this seems to be a function of chronology. The Peter Brook and Grotowski sections show some weaknesses–likely because their work is “ancient history” by now and it is harder to recreate the feeling of their work genuinely. By the time Mr. Fracé reaches the Robert Wilson section, however, he is clearly in his element. The wit here is measured and prevents the play from becoming purely an exercise in formalism. Mr. Fracé is helped here by his design crew, too, who are surely having the time of their lives recreating all these things they have probably only seen in books and film clips. Ali Rose Panzarella’s costumes, especially, are brilliantly evocative.

Avant-garde theater has a reputation as being altogether too earnest and serious, but Once Upon a Time 6x in the West is neither. It is a light-hearted exploration of just how much fun it can be to shake people out of their complacency. Mr. Fracé and his cast here take one from director Peter Brook’s pages: When all is said and done, a play is play. This is purely a play, and it is better for it. It is a chance to watch a talented group of young actors stretch themselves and their audience, and a good chance to catch up on the history of experimental theater with a smile to boot.