By SHANNON MCRAE
Special to the OBSERVER
High Plains Fandango, a new play by contemporary playwright Red Shuttle-worth, tells the story of a small Western town struggling between comfortable mythologies of cowboys, outlaws, and frontier justice, and the harsh realities of hard work, limited opportunities, corporate exploitation and ecological disaster. Directed by Professor Thomas Loughlin, the SUNY Fredonia Depart-ment of Theater and Dance, brings the story to raging, vibrant life.
One of the difficulties of setting any story in the American West is that our nation's most cherished mythologies consistently collide with the region's complex realities. The 19th century doctrine of Manifest Destiny - that it was not only our right but our sacred duty to expand Westward, drove our national economy and policies for over a century. The fact that a transcontinental railroad, telegraph, European-style settlements and resource-intensive agricultural methods, soon made us one of the wealthiest nations in the world and positioned us for play as a dominant global power, some took as Divine justification of the enterprise. The mythology of the West - strong individuals working hard and struggling against the odds and the elements to win their own piece of land and peace of mind, rough justice and clear-cut moral codes, shaped our popular culture. First in Wild West Shows and dime novels, later in Hollywood movies, and most recently in nostalgic reconstructions and re-enactments aimed at the tourist market, the popular mythology has superseded the reality.
The realities of Westward expansion: wholesale massacre of thousands of American Indians, deliberate despoliation of their food sources in the form of buffalo slaughter and the seizure and enclosure of their lands, were more difficult for the national imagination to contend with. Those who had actually settled and made their living there, especially the wheat farmers and livestock ranchers in the arid, expansive High Plains of the Middle West, knew the harsh realities all too well. Because semi-arid land with thin topsoil could not sustain intensive grazing and large-scale grain production, this was the region hit hardest by the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
After World War II, and the dawn of the Cold War, our two concerns as a nation were economic recovery and national defense. Recovery of the Great Plains, our most vital food-producing region, required irrigation, which meant tapping into the Ogallala Aquifer. Once considered an inexhaustible supply of deep, fresh water, this aquifer, which supplies 80 percent of the drinking water supply to the people in eight states living within its eight-state boundary, and some 30 percent of irrigation water, is now in danger of going dry. National defense involved, among other things, the construction of missile silos in several of the plains states, chosen for the expansive land and low populations. Today, these extremely expensive and now completely deserted sites are being marketed as real estate, "contemporary castles," available for perusal on such sites as www.missilebases.com.
Bartlett Theater, SUNY Fredonia Campus
March 1-3, 8 p.m.,
True Roman, Pulp Fiction, Dancing and Guns
High Plains Fandango is set in this contemporary Western landscape, of impending ecological crisis, post Cold War decay, a collapsed economy, frustrated dreams, and striving exploitation of both natural resources and national heritage. The young Fredonia actors do a remarkable job with some highly complex material. Red Shuttleworth is a prize-winning poet as well as a playwright, and as such delights in language. In this play, a character's mental and emotional switch between the hard struggles of Western living and the more compelling, pop-culture shaped archetypes, is signaled by a switch in register. O'Garr the hard-working cattleman, counters his new suburban bride's romantic (and expensive) plans for newlywed bliss with flat declaration: "I start putting in swimming pools and not buyin' a couple replacement bulls pretty soon, then I'll lose this place." Later, this same character we took for nothing more than a stereotypical hard-working cowboy reveals the true extent of his frustrated ambitions and rage by falling deliberately into the ornate and elaborate speech self-reflexively informed by pop culture, notably David Milch's Deadwood and Quentin Tarantino's loquacious antiheroes. Clayton Howe manages, with rangy good looks and dominant presence, to negotiate this character's weariness, underlying sweetness and barely contained rage. Cassandra Giovine skillfully reveals his new bride Cinthia, from her first impression as a shallow, typical suburbanite far away from town culture, through a wonderful daffy playfulness as she tries to manage her stubborn husband and the thoroughly unromantic reality of a rancher's wife, and finally to a toughness and generosity as she emerges as one of the stories true heroes.
A fandango is a light, playful couple's dance. If the dance between O'Garr and Cinthia is the slow, sad dance of reality when all the romance is gone, Claire Elise Walton as the town's 16 year old ward and Andrew Albigese as her best friend/slow-to-catch-on lover, bring all the joyousness and mischief back to the dance, and somehow the best and most protective instincts of even the town's angriest characters. Rigid, dishonest shopkeeper John Hooley, played by John Dimaria, and his fragile, visionary wife Aquinas, enact a harsher dance of entirely mismatched desires. Tony Taylor plays Ken Adams, the town's newest resident - missile silo dweller, wounded veteran, soldier hero and would-be entrepreneur, with surprising nuance and depth given his character's ambiguous motivations. His courtship of Kelsey Rispin's lovely, sharp-tongued Waitress is its own lovely, complex dance. Nicholas Nieves' Father Ben is the lone man out and wildcard in this dancing quadrille. Nieves shades the stock western character of man of the cloth with a darker past into a more contemporary sort of kindly sinner.
High Plains Fandango is a Walter Gloor Mainstage production. This series tends toward edgier, contemporary, and more adult material. This production contains sexual situations and instances of sometimes genuinely shocking violence. The play is not appropriate for children. For an adult audience, however, it is a feast of language and emotions.
General Admission: $16. Tickets are available through the SUNY Fredonia Ticket Office in the modular complex in the Dods Hall parking lot across from the Williams Center, by phone at 673-3501 (1-866-441-4928) or online at www.fredonia.edu/tickets.
Shannon McRae is an Associate Professor of English and the coordinator of American Studies at SUNY Fredonia