Monday, May 13, 2019

"The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy, the Worst Robber in the West" by nimbus theatre at the Crane Theater

With their original work, nimbus theatre often brings us some fascinating but little known historical event or issue, typically in a thoughtful way that's somehow relevant to today. Their newest work, The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy, the Worst Robber in the West, does that too, but it's the first straight-up comedy I've seen them do, and it's great fun. Real life unsuccessful outlaw Elmer McCurdy would likely have been lost to history, if not for the strange tale of his corpse, which was preserved and made the rounds of carnivals, exhibits, side shows, and even movies, eventually stashed away in storage where it was discovered in 1976 and finally buried. He was the subject of an episode of Drunk History, and this play sort of feels like an extended episode of Drunk History. Silly and funny yet sorta kinda true.

Written by Josh Cragun with input from the ensemble, the play begins with a dead Elmer on display at a funeral home. He then comes to life as fellow outlaws Lil' Britches (real) and Grits Crabcake (fictional) tell his story. At the same time we follow the journey of Elmer's corpse, which was longer than his living journey. The three outlaws form a gang called the Oklahombres (which was actually the name of Elmer's hero Bill Doolin's gang) and try to rob banks and trains and such, but due to their own ineptitude, and bad luck, they are not very successful. But after Elmer's violent and untimely death, his reputation grows as his corpse becomes famous; they even make movies about him (which we see scenes from). But Lil' Britches and Grits don't let these tall tales stand; the interrupt to tell us the real story of Elmer McCurdy. The story is also interrupted by clever old-timey commercial breaks.

The Oklahombres (Boo Segersin, Sam Landman,
and Derek Dirlam, photo by Emmet Kowler)
The show is broadly comedic, making fun of the melodramatic Westerns, chock full of puns and Elmer's amusing malapropisms. Director Liz Neerland gets consistently big and funny performances from the six-person ensemble. Sam Landman is very entertaining as the titular outlaw who thinks he's smarter than he is, and is also remarkably good at standing still and playing dead for long periods of time. Derek Dirlam and Boo Segersin are both great as the sidekicks Grits and Lil' Britches (I particularly love the latter's repeated insistence "I'm a lady!"). Hard-working ensemble members Song Kim, Laura Mason, and Lily Noonan play a multitude of characters with distinct accents and personalities.

The Crane's performance space has been turned into the sepia-toned Wild West, complete with bar, saloon doors, and various stools and barrels. There's also a cool fire effect, played for laughs (as everything is). The shabby chic Western wear completes the look. (Scenic design by Ursula K. Bowden, costume design by Rubble&Ash, aka Andrea M. Gross and Barb Portinga.)

The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy, the Worst Robber in the West continues through this weekend only, with a pay what you can performance tonight (Monday). It's a fun ride through some strangely true history. Click here for info and tickets.