The cast of No Mother to Guide Her
(Photo: Marizio Bacci)
The cast of No Mother to Guide Her
(Photo: Marizio Bacci)
Nineteenth century American melodrama is hardly standard fare for today's theatergoing audiences. These early examples of indigenous American playwriting are full of clichés, bad jokes, offensive ethnic stereotypes, and meandering plot threads. Yet they also have a certain amount of theatrical appeal--at least for director Jim Simpson, who is staging revivals of two of these works--Lillian Mortimer's No Mother to Guide Her and Walt Woods' Billy the Kid--as part of the Bat Theater Company's summer repertory.

Of the two, No Mother to Guide Her is the far superior production. The story revolves around a beautiful young girl, Rose (Cori Clark Nelson), who is being courted by arch criminal John Livingstone (Dean Strange). Rose is secretly married to Livingstone's former partner, Ralph Carlton (Joe Holt), who is attempting to go straight. The terrific ensemble cast manages to keep the show lively and interesting despite gaps in the script's continuity and logic. Jennifer McKenna as Mother Taggert is especially noteworthy: This diminutive actress brings a hammy relish to her over-the-top characterization of a conniving gypsy. Her mad cackle and commanding stage presence supply most of the evening's laughs.

Strange, as the handsome but cruel villain, is also a treat. He prowls the stage with a sly confidence and delivers his lines with a deliberate meticulousness that always manages to seem unhurried despite the frenzy of gunshots, fist fights, and reversals of fortune that litter the play's action. In addition, Beth Tapper brings an eerie other-worldliness to her role as the abused orphan Bess. She's the character who has "no mother to guide her" and therefore falls into the hands of Mother Taggert, who keeps her drugged, kills her baby, and makes Bess her slave.

Christien Methot's lighting design helps to bring the melodrama's many scenes to life. A particularly clever invention is a portable box that uses a fan, some white cloth, and colored gels to create the illusion of an open flame. The most delightful aspect of the production, however, has got to be the original music created by the ensemble and Jim Simpson, played by a three-person band. Karen Larsen on fiddle, James Ruchala on banjo, and Jeremy Blynn on drums/percussion set the mood and pacing for the entire show; for example, a slow drumbeat heightens the dramatic tension during a scene wherein the show's heroine is tricked into marrying the villain. At other times, the lively bluegrass flavor of the music keeps the energy of the cast hopping.

Thankfully, the same band is also used to good effect in Billy the Kid. Here, folk-inspired music underscores almost the entire play. Woods' script gives a romanticized and apocryphal treatment to the legend of the famous outlaw, including the circumstances that led to his criminal career, his quest for revenge against the man he believes murdered his parents, and his last stand. (There is a bit of a twist from other versions of the story to ensure a happy ending.)

Simone White as Billy the Kid
Simone White as Billy the Kid
The production is cast across racial and gender lines, which makes for some interesting characterizations and also blunts the blatant racism that is so much a part of the play. For instance, two elderly Confederate soldiers are played by African-American actors, while Billy is played by a young woman. Simone White, in the title role, has a slim boyish figure that serves her well and a calm demeanor that is suited to Billy's interactions with the various buffoons he encounters. However, when called upon to reach emotional heights, the actress is unable to deliver.

The highlight of the show is the performance of Tim Cummings as the villainous Boyd Denver. It's hard to wring subtlety out of melodrama but, somehow, Cummings manages to do so. He can convey a wealth of information through a brief, sly smile, yet he's also capable of the hyperactive antics that the role sometimes calls for. Most impressively, he manages to endow his character with an emotional complexity that is only hinted at in the script. This is particularly striking in Denver's final scene with Billy where, for a moment, the villain seems all too painfully human.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast never transcends the fact that their characters were written in broadly painted strokes. They also lack the comic timing it requires to make some of the playwright's admittedly lame jokes work. An extended sequence revolving around a possible morphine poisoning falls completely flat; likewise, an argument between the two confederate soldiers also fails to excite interest.

The blame for this must partially fall upon Simpson, although the director manages to keep the show theatrically engaging overall. In both Billy the Kid and No Mother to Guide Her, Simpson frames the productions by employing an Impresario (Jun Kim) to welcome the audience, "conduct" the scene changes (sometimes with baton in hand), and serve as a reminder that this is, indeed, just a show. The director also uses two actors dressed in blue Chinoiserie-inspired outfits to move around scenery and set pieces. Presumably, they are meant to function in the manner of kuroko, the invisible stagehands of Kabuki and Noh dramas. Simpson seems to want to bring the Asian performance tradition into a context fitting the westward American expansion; hence, the stagehands are called "coolies," a slang term for migrant (often unskilled) Asian laborers. Though the costumes are historically inaccurate, the concept works well enough.

Neither of these two shows match the wit and ingenuity of another of Simpson's Asian-influenced productions: the 1999 Obie Award-winning Benten Kozo, based on a Kabuki play by Kawatake Mokuami. They're also unlikely to make you want to go out and read more 19th century American melodramas. Still, they do afford an intriguing glimpse into American theater history.