Think “Little Big Man” meets the Bard and you’ll have some idea of the narrative sweep, thematic reach and whiz-bang theatricality surrounding Richard Nelson’s “How Shakespeare Won the West,” the world-premiere season opener at Beantown’s Huntington Theater Company, under new artistic director Peter DuBois. That the script and production do not live up to the play’s ambition is a disappointment — at least at this stage of its development.
Compressed into 105 minutes and presented on a simple setting that makes heavy use of the audience’s imagination — and the scribe’s language — to supply the American urban, wilderness and California landscape circa 1849, Nelson presents enough ideas for a half-dozen plays. Sometimes it’s a theatrical feast; other times it’s just stuffing.
The play is a rollicking history lesson on American expansion, a celebration of this country’s long love affair with Shakespeare, a chronicle of the can-do pioneering spirit and a valentine to the transformative powers of the theater. It tells a humorous and human story of a troupe of resilient actors — taking time out to deal with issues of race, religion and Native Americans. And, oh yes, there are cameo appearances by P.T.Barnum, Buffalo Bill and Abe Lincoln.
That’s a lot of ground to cover. But too often the going gets pretty perfunctory, the characters thinly rendered and the omnipresent story-theater device more than a little facile. Even Abe’s speech about the burgeoning theater movement is less-than-inspired.
The show is also unevenly cast, with several perfs that should pop but instead get lost in the ruckus. And though he creates some vivid stage pictures, helmer Jonathan Moscone hasn’t found the right tone to weave all the disparate elements into a smooth and satisfying whole.
Nelson, who dealt with the same time period — but centering on the Rialto — in “Two Shakespearean Actors,” knows his turf well. Sometimes he knows it too well, cramming the narrative with recited scraps of research rather than constructing lived-in scenes.
Story starts with a group of New York actors listening to tales of Gold Rush miners in California apparently hungering for theater — especially Shakespeare — and willing to pay big for the Bard.
Lured by certain fame and fortune, tavern owner Thomas Jefferson Calhoun (Will LeBow) and his wife Alice (Marty Beth Fisher), former thesps who miss the acting life, decide to go for theatrical gold and head West, along with ingenue-to-be daughter Susan (Sarah Nealis).
A ragtag troupe is assembled, made up of a drunk star (Chris Henry Coffey), his devoted wife (Susannah Schulman), a gay ham (Jeremiah Kissel), an old character actor (Jon De Vries), a theater newbie (Erik Lochtefeld), a young comic with a penchant for playing reverends (Joe Tapper) and a “utility actress”/whore (Kelly Hutchinson).
Production takes off when the troupe does, winding itself across the country.The trip becomes more perilous when it hits the Dakota Black Hills where it faces a Cheyenne tribe, religious fanatics and violent homophobia. But Nelson’s play concludes with the American need for a happy ending, even if it means tweaking the final scene of “Hamlet.”
Though there are some lovely moments — a Cheyenne chief’s identifcation with a performance of “King Lear,” for one — and some funny ones, the sketchy, presentational production at this point falls short of its winning premise and promise.