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How Shakespeare Won the West

Richard Nelson's new play about a troupe of 19th-century actors proves to be little more than a plodding history lesson.

By Boston
Will LeBow and Mary Beth Fisher in
How Shakespeare Won the West
(© T Charles Erickson)
Will LeBow and Mary Beth Fisher in
How Shakespeare Won the West
(© T Charles Erickson)
Richard Nelson's latest play, How Shakespeare Won the West, proves to be little more than a plodding history lesson about a troupe of actors who strike out for California in 1848, in hopes of skimming off some gold dust. While director Jonathan Moscone has assembled a generally competent ensemble, Nelson is so intent on sketching a group perspective that the actors are afforded little chance to dig deep.

Like the typical company of the day, Nelson's ragtag troupe is composed of archetypes, including the matinee idol who tends to tipple (Chris Henry Coffey), the designated "funny" guy (Joe Tapper, who gives no evidence of said attribute), the closeted homosexual (Jeremiah Kissel, greedily milking his lines while failing ever to endow them with a credible context), and the good-hearted whore (a game Kelly Hutchinson). The whole quasi-family is headed up by a husband-and-wife team of New York saloonkeepers (Will LeBow and Mary Beth Fisher) who once trod the boards in a modest capacity and yearn to reclaim the spotlight.

The play starts off subdued as the actors quietly mill about the stage for a full 10 minutes while the house lights remain on, and then having briefly bestirred itself for a spate of clunky exposition, never stays revved up for long. The herky-jerky format alternates between enacted passages and narration. Between scenes, the characters fill in the gaps by reciting -- in third person, past tense -- their actions in the interim. The constant disruptions, perhaps intended as an alienation device, achieve that end all too readily.

Unfortunately, we're rarely given a chance to become invested in anyone's story. The exceptions include Susannah Schulman as a famous actress who goes on the road as an act of fealty toward her husband (the aforementioned narcissistic sot, who turns on a dime to return her devotion), and has a captivating moment when this relentlessly upbeat travelogue finally turns dark. Jon de Vries manages to suggest an aura of dignity and untapped depth as the company's most senior member -- making it a pity he appears earmarked from the start as a heart-tugging roadside casualty. And Sarah Nealis has a delightful, all-too-brief turn playing Ellen Bateman, a real-life nine-year-old Shakespearean phenomenon of the mid-19th century. The play could use more of her rambunctious posing and flouncing, and less grade-school pageantry about a phase of history already familiar to most.

For cohesiveness's sake, the play might also benefit from adapting a single, picaresque point-of-view, such as that of Ohio hick Buck Buchanan (Eric Lochtefelt), who has the bad luck to find himself "adopted" en route by a pair of discipline-happy para-Shakers (LeBow and Schulman in other roles). By actually embodying funny rather than just staking the claim, the scene stands out amid the long slog west, which too often feels as if it's unfurling in real time.


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