Friday, July 28, 2023

"Shane" at the Guthrie Theater

"The farmer and the cowman should be friends," says the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! But in the classic American novel Shane, now with a brilliant new adaptation on the Guthrie stage, the farmer and the cowman most certainly are not friends. This Shane tells the story of a Mexican-American family trying to eke out a living on their farm in Wyoming, being threatened by a big time rancher, who wants to drive all of the farmers off the land and raise cattle. A lot of cattle. Enter Shane, a Black cowboy with a dark and mysterious past and a dangerous streak, who helps the family keep their land. But of course, the land used to be occupied by the Indigenous peoples of this land, who were previously driven off by the US government (using settlers like these). In the same way that the recent revival of Oklahoma! brought out all of the complexities of the origins of America, particularly the American West, that were always in the script, Karen Zacarías' adaptation of the 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer pulls in more voices and more stories to show a truer picture of the history of America, the people of color who were always there but often not seen in classic representations. But yet, it remains true to the spirit of the original story, and it's still a wildly entertaining and gorgeously told tale of the mythical American West, just a little more diverse and authentic. This new play (which the Guthrie co-commissioned and co-produced with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park) is a dynamic conclusion to a truly excellent 60th season at the Guthrie Theater.

Never having read the book or seen the movie (at least not in this millennium), I can't speak to what has changed with this adaptation, but the plot points seem to be much the same as the Wiki summary. Joe and Marian Starrett, along with their son Bobby, are homesteaders who came to Wyoming as part of the Homestead Act, and are being threatened by a rancher named Fletcher who uses intimidation and violence to scare farmers off the land. In this version of the story, the Starretts are Mexican, with Joe's father being White to explain the name. Shane is a former enslaved person, who fought in the Civil War, with hints at darker parts of his past. He wants to turn over a new leaf as he settles in on the family farm, but this war with Fletcher draws him back into his violent past. The one added character is an Indigenous woman named Winona, who serves as a sort of liaison to the native communities in Fletcher's dealings. Their stories are woven organically into the larger narrative in a way that doesn't feel forced or preachy, but rather adds more depth and specificity to it.

the Starretts (Ricardo Chivera and Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey)
with Winona (Shayna Jackson) and Fletcher (Bill McCallum)
(photo by Dan Norman)
Director Blake Robison, who also directed Zacarías' Native Gardens at the Guthrie, returns to direct this production (which premiered in Cincinnati last month, the design and cast remaining largely unchanged). He directs it in a theatrical style, the characters speaking and moving in a specific way. Movement director Vanessa Severo has created some choreographed movement in scene transitions, including some body slapping to the music, as well as pauses within some scenes, creating gorgeous tableaux. Like Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, this is a memory play, with adult Bobby narrating the story, and seamlessly stepping into and out of it. I'm not sure if it was in the script or the direction, but sometimes Bobby steps away from the scene and continues to speak the dialogue from outside of it, with the other characters looking at the empty space where he was. It's a bold choice that works, almost as if we're then forced to see the little boy Bobby instead of the grown man on stage. 

come back, Shane! (William DeMeritt, photo by Dan Norman)
I had a front row view of this cast, and they're all terrific (even down to the "essentials" Kaleb Baker and Gabe Woodard who move furniture in character and get to participate in the fight scenes). As the title character, you couldn't ask for anyone better than William DeMeritt, dark and mysterious, with hidden depths and stories we only get a glimpse of, hard yet with an inner softness. Juan Arturo is a strong narrator as Bobby, instantly transforming into an adorable and precocious eight-year-old when he steps into the scenes. Ricardo Chavira (part of the Guthrie Experience class of 1999 before embarking on a successful TV career, from Desperate Housewives to the current Netflix series Glamorous) returns to the Guthrie and is a warm and strong Joe. Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey is equally warm and strong as Marian, a tender and grounded chemistry between them. Shayna Jackson's Winona is smart and capable and does what she has to to help her people, while Grant Goodman gives two opposite performances, as a good guy farmer and a not-so-good hired gun. A trio of local actors complete the cast - Mikell Sapp as a young and brash employee of Fletcher, Bill McCallum as the elegantly cruel Fletcher, and #TCTheater's favorite Western actor Terry Hempleman in dual roles.

photo by Mikki Schaffner
Every part of the design is stunning without being obtrusive, everything working together to create the feel of a Western. From the opening scene, in which Shane enters in his black hat and visibly knocks the dust off his clothes and splashes water on his face, you know you're in for a visual treat. The set (designed by Lex Liang) is deceptively simple, a backdrop of wooden slats interrupted only by swinging saloon doors, a raised platform at the back with a switchback series of ramps down to floor level, a few rustic wooden chairs. The light plays upon the backdrop and shines through the slats, creating different moods and times of day (lighting design by Pablo Santiago). Trever Bowen's period costumes are smart and subtle, with hints at Marian's Mexican heritage and Winona's Indigenous heritage. Shane appears every bit the mysterious hero in black Western shirt and hat, and cowboy boots with spurs that jingle when he walks. The score (composed by sound designer Matthew M. Nielson) is perfection, so evocative of the Western genre, full of mournful steel guitar and other era appropriate instrumentation. I'd download it if it were available. Last but not least, the fight choreography is absolutely thrilling, from the dramatic tension-filled gunfights, to the multi-person fist fights, sometimes with characters spaced a few feet apart and facing the audience, their movements perfectly timed, sometimes close up and throwing each other around the stage (fight choreography by Sordelet Inc.).

This is how you reinvent an American classic, adding back in the missing voices and stories to create a fuller and more accurate picture of our history, while remaining true to the spirit of the original, and above all creating a wildly entertaining and gorgeously told story. I've recently been listening to a podcast called Wilder about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House series of novels. They talk about a similar thing, that Black people, Latinx people, Indigenous people, and immigrants were a part of the pioneer history of America, but Wilder chose not to write about them, except tangentially and often in not flattering (or accurate) terms. But their stories exist, and as grown-up Bobby says at the end of the play, all of these stories are part of the land, part of our history. It's refreshing to see those stories woven back into our classic historical tales, giving us a fuller and richer portrait of the past. More than refreshing, it's necessary.

I highly recommend you catch Shane at the Guthrie Theater through August 27, before he rides out of town to parts unknown, leaving only his memory behind.