Review: Winning 'The West' with shtik and bravura
Here's how the West was won: with toe-tapping music, old-fashioned bravura, a good deal of mime and plenty of movement.
And with a slick script. I know this because I watched it happen at "The West," an entertaining and wholly invented story about the last hurrah of Billy the Kid.
"The West" is accurately subtitled "An Absurdist Western Music-Hall Drama." It's a self-produced show running through the weekend in Center City, on a stage where the talented Alex Bechtel purposely confuses The Kid's story with the tales of a modern marriage breakup and an auction of revolvers. In Bechtel's conception, these stories come together in a cool time warp that at one point has the dozen-member cast making fun of the play.
Bechtel is a local theater artist and more – I first saw him years ago in a Fringe Festival piece in which he stood out (he's very tall, but he stood out for his sudden guitar playing amid a story involving a cast of about 30). Then I began to see him on several area stages, including Plays & Players, where he's been the musical director and pianist for 1812 Productions' popular annual "This Is the Week That Is" satire.
"The West" began as Bechtel's final project in his studies at the new Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training here, and he created something with legs. It went on to become the current filled-out version, polished and with plenty of smart ideas. The piece's actual content is, to use the current phrase, devised – it was created by Bechtel and the entire cast plus others, 15 in all, each credited as the show's writers. It's also Bechtel's first time out as the director of a full-length work.
The show is 70 minutes of fun, worthy of the best works you'd see at the annual Fringe Festival here. It plays out on Radha Vakharia's barebones setting that calls for coat racks with costumes to the rear, chairs in different configurations and side-stage seating for the actors when they're not performing their roles, or those of can-can girls, cowboys. Or – in the case of Lauren Harries – a campfire.
Bechtel also wrote the original music that runs through the show and designed the sound. Writing additional music were four cast members – Justin Rose, who is the show's excellent musician and balladeer (it's the West, so you have to have a balladeer), plus Martha Stuckey, Caitlin Antram and Dan Higbee. Dominic Chacon did the lighting and Jillian Rose Keys, the nifty Western costumes.
The cast reunites Pig Iron’s inaugural graduating class, of which Bechtel is a part. The performers are uniformly fine, and also include Scott Sheppard as a shlub whose wife leaves him and Alice Yorke as the ex-wife, Ben Grinberg as Billy the Kid and Nick Gillette as the lawman who pursues him, and Jenn Kidwell, Olivia Jorgensen and Katie Gould in a number of roles. I forgot to mention the other way the West was won – by a surfeit of shtik. There’s plenty of it here, involving golf, daguerreotype photography, fallen pants and other subjects that don’t go together on paper but sure do on stage.
"The West," presented by Alex Bechtel, runs through Sunday at Off-Broad Street Theater, on Sansom Street near 17h Street. Information: thewestplay.brownpapertickets.com