Blood On The Saddle At Alverno

Detroit-based theatre company brings post-modernist old west to the southern edge of Milwaukee.

Aug. 20, 2011
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Detroit-based theatre group The Hinterlands made it to the campus of Alverno College this past weekend with a performance of their show Manifest Destiny (there was blood on the saddle). Billed as being, ‘A Psychedelic Wild West Show,’ the show is a weird, haphazard fusion of different theatrical moods held together by a loose cartilage of characterization.

We are introduced to the characters playing a game of cards in the lobby of the Pitman Thetre. Hinterlands core members Liza Bielby and Richard Newman play Calamity Jane and Billy the Kid. They are joined by Eleni Zaharopoulos as Belle Starr, Dave Sanders as a guy named Ned and Steven DeWater as the archetypical Stranger.

After a quick game of cards, the crowd is rushed into a small portion of the Pitman theatre to watch a rear-projected, “motion picture,” narrated by the cast. After the curtain falls, there’s the bigger space of the entire theatre . . . a space we’re lead through to get to the next scene—a scene taking place onstage. In an hour and a half the crowd moves through a series of different positions on and offstage. 

Aside from the occasionally tedious, nearly relentless herding of the audience from one spot to the next along a trail of tears, the show moves briskly from scene to scene with no real regard to a larger plot structure. It’s kind of an interesting way to relate to the rest o f the audience . . . we’re one large community always redefining where we are. Even in seating location, there isn’t stability. Only the characters remain constant as scenes play out in a variety of different formats. Far from ignoring its problems, Manifest Destiny embraces them. This is a show that is absolutely in love with its own flaws. It’s hard not to find that charming.  

Without a clearly defined larger plot structure, it kind of feels like we’re following around a group of hebephrenic schizophrenics on a guided tour of their psychoses. There are points where the play coasts into some pretty amazingly transcendental moments where the more inspired end of the madness is delivered to the audience with sparkling clarity.

At one point, we’re standing at the back of the stage facing Zaharopoulos telling the story of her childhood as Belle Starr. A curtain wavers claustrophobically behind her, falling to reveal the immensity of the desert—played here by a large, empty Pitman theatre. The curtain flows to the back of the theatre under the power of a couple of ensemble members and for the briefest moment there’s this brilliantly breathtaking sense of immensity. The show hits moods like this intermittently with a reasonably reliable frequency. 

A big help here is the strength with which these characters come across. A show without a coherent plot structure is extremely tedious without charming performers and there’s plenty of charm here. Bielby is kind of a pleasantly demented figure as Calamity . . . a hip flask in her holster and a smile on her face. Newman looks classic and classy as Billy. Sanders and DeWater’s performances are shrouded in a classic old west dynamic that moves things along with just the right mood. Zaharopoulos is the iconic femme fatale. It all works pretty well even if, in large part, the production seems to have forgotten to have much of a compelling point to it all.

Admittedly, looking for a decisive, carefully rendered theme in a show that’s billed as being psychedelic is kind of missing the point. This is a frenzy of mood and emotion. It’s a weird, theatrical Rorschach prism with the suggestion of certain themes about destiny, brutality and survival flowing through it all. Manifest Destiny has such a beautiful sense of decay about it. With tattered clothes and corpselike extras populating the edges of the stage in the form of duct tape dummies in costume, the show feels kind of post-apocalyptic. This is a show about identity and human frontier . . . the last frontier seems to be human survival and we’ve lost. The world ended in the old west—we’ve all just forgotten to stop walking around in it. Time itself ended over a hundred years ago. Sometimes we remember we’re not really here. And so the whole thing has kind of a memorably creepy vibe about it that makes it strikingly vivid and remarkably provocative. 

Manifest Destiny (there was blood on the saddle) runs for two more performances at Alverno’s Pitman Theatre. There are performances tonight at 7pm and 10pm. For advance tickets and more information, visit Alverno Online.




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