The stakes always seem so high in New York City. Too high. For many young artists presenting their work on stages, in galleries, or elsewhere, there’s a sense that this is an all-or-nothing town. You get one shot, at very high expense (living costs, venue costs, advertising and public relations fees are much higher here than elsewhere), and as someone who isn’t a celebrity or backed by a large institution, you’re likely to have small audiences. Add to that the expectation that the artwork you create not only needs to meet outsize financial goals, but also needs to serve some kind of common good or have important things to say about the world, or else engage in serious aesthetic or theoretical conversations with other works of art that, in the vernacular, push the field forward.
Therein lies the rub—it’s not often that artists or their audiences really get to enjoy seeing the work. Beyond the above, for audiences, there’s the earnestness of a lot of new work by young people, something that can be scary when it results in heartfelt or ambitious work that falls flat or lacks coherence, because you want them to succeed and it just feels bad when it doesn’t, so you spend the whole time feeling uncomfortable and wanting it to end. Then there’s the intellectually tough or highly abstract work that even at its most brilliant requires a lot of engagement from the audience. There are certainly rewards to that kind of work, and I’m a big fan of a lot of it, but I bring it up here because I don’t sit back and relax when I see those works: I’m trying to actively open to the experience, paying close attention, attempting to parse what I’m seeing.
All of which is to say, it’s a rare and special treat to see a good show that’s just a lot of fun and isn’t overly complex or overly aggressive in packing itself with messages and ideas and commentary. In other words, it’s not that often that you get to go see a show that’s just a good time.
The Girl of the Golden West, a new play created collaboratively by the company Rady & Bloom, which is being presented as the final show in this year’s Ice Factory Festival at the New Ohio Theatre, is such a show. The play is adapted from an earlier Broadway play of the same name, written by David Belasco. In fact the play was such an enormous success in the early 1900s, that it was revived twice on Broadway, adapted as an opera by Puccini, rewritten as a novel by Belasco, and presented on film four separate times.
Rady & Bloom’s version is a tight 75 minutes, with the story being told primarily through song. The cast is compressed to four main players and three instrumentalists, who also take on occasional bit parts during the show, and the drama starts at an upbeat tempo from the first moments, barely resting until the very end. The story revolves around a bandit who travels to a tiny Gold Rush town in California, his love interest, his rival in love, and questions about whether or not he’ll continue his bandit-y ways or be reformed by love. One comically transgressive element is the show’s gender-bending casting: Starr Kwofie plays the town’s sheriff, and Brian Rady plays a barkeep as well as a sultry and high-spirited harlot. While all of the cast does good work in the show, Kwofie and Rady really shine, enjoying the chance to embrace and have fun with these Western archetypes, but also stretching a bit beyond the clichés not only of their characters but also of gender-bending itself.
As you can tell from the story description and casting, this is every bit the classic Western tale, and rife with all the attendant cultural stereotypes that come along with that about women, people of color, and morality. Belasco’s original may even have been partly responsible for cementing the popularity of the form and its archtypes in the American imagination.
But Rady & Bloom’s re-imagining of the work is playful, often tongue-in-cheek, and surprising in the ways that it manages to draw you in despite the simplicity of the story. There are a few false notes, particularly the awkward rap that actor Tom Hennes performs early in the play in his role as the bandit. And unfortunately, because the actors voices aren’t projected in the cavernous space of the New Ohio Theatre, a few chunks of dialogue are inaudible, particularly as the pace of the piece has the actors often speaking over one another. But you have to remember that we’re not on Broadway here—this is a downtown performance of a premiere (i.e. a largely untested play) by a small company given a very short run in a festival; this isn’t a multi-million dollar corporate-backed spectacle (thankfully that means it’s nowhere near the cost of a Broadway ticket). But it’s far more endearing for being what it is, and it’s an example why I will always prefer scrappy productions to slick products.
Rady & Bloom’s inventive and enjoyable work uses the ingenuity that theater people have been demonstrating for centuries: building a clever set with the resources they had, mixing in contemporary costumes that aren’t cheesy or overdone, and making use of the space and the material they had in some really clever ways. It’s a bit camp, a bit genuine, and mostly a good time.
So, go enjoy it. Beers are only $4 to boot.
Rady & Bloom’s Girl of the Golden West plays again today and Saturday. More info here.