2017 Next Stage Theatre Festival Review: Western, a play with music (The Harvey Dunn Campfire)

SONY DSC

For the first ten minutes or so, Western, a play with music (playing as part of Next Stage Theatre Festival) is somewhat misty and disorienting. It doesn’t sit you down and hold your hand and walk you through its premise, but rather introduces it in a slow burn, a collaborative campfire fantasy that’s equal parts blood and poetry. Puppetry and clever staging introduce you slowly to the characters and the shared trauma they’re all determined to relive: the accidental killing of one boy by another that kickstarts a manhunt across a great unidentified landscape.

For those first ten minutes, I was afraid I was missing something–the movements of this existential campfire were mysterious and intriguing, but like a slippery fish, difficult to hold onto. Then, at that ten minute mark, something clicked, fell suddenly into place, and I spent the next 65 minutes eagerly waiting for the end I knew was coming. 

Interestingly, my companion for the show didn’t have this shoe-dropping moment, and followed the play more or less chronologically. It’s the type of play that will hit folks differently in this way: either you’ll figure out its mysterious secrets or you won’t, but either way the journey is a fascinating one, strange and violent and poetical.

In this way, the play rewards careful attention. It’s not really one you can afford to drift away for, and I imagine its slow pace and considering tone won’t work for everyone. As a result, there are a few lingering details that I worry I missed: a gun appears near the final act, for example, but I’m still not really sure where it came from in the context of the story. 

Grounding this bloody frontier fantasy are some lovely songs, supplied by Gordan Bolan and Jocelyn Adema, intermixing instrumentals with singing. The music is both thematic and narrative, woven beautifully into the story, even as you enter the theatre to the tune of gentle folk stylings. They play against a uniformly strong cast — Mairi Babb, Sam Kalileh, Brendan Murray and Caroline Toal — who act as a fluid unit without sacrificing the stark individuality of their characters. 

So too is the staging impressive: sheets and cloth and brooms play pivotal roles as both living creatures and inanimate objects. The most wonderful bit of staging involves representing Rabbit, the absent boy all the characters are chasing, as invisible save a pair of puppeteered shoes and hat. The symbolism is effective in its simplicity.

This is a show that demands your attention and your patience, but if you’re willing to take the journey, you might find yourself as slowly seduced by this haunting show as I was. 

Details:

Image of Brendan Murray as Dirt, Sam Kalilieh as Reach provided by the company.