Had Billy the Kid survived Pat Garrett’s bullets, lived to the ripe age of 47, and taken in a Broadway show, he might have been amused by Walter Woods’s Billy the Kid. The 1906 play—one of two melodramas now at the Flea—jiggers, jollies, or outright falsifies every aspect of Billy’s history, from name to gang to death.
Melodrama, once America’s theatrical genre to beat, excels at such confabulations and simplifications. Its popularity rested in large part on taking complex situations and three-dimensional personalities (if not entire ethnic groups) and simplifying them into vivid confections of romance and violence. Melodramas are big plays, wildly panoramic, explicitly concerned with a full spectrum of races, classes, and conflicts. The plots strain credibility, but their sheer theatricality is undeniable. The playwrights and actor-managers of the 19th and early 20th century had an intoxicating faith in the possibilities of stage representation: Plantations burned, trains screeched, soldiers fought, white slavers abducted in gimcrack splendor.
This allegiance to an illusionistic stage is still attractive today, particularly as an antidote to endless living-room comedies and bedroom dramas. Flea impresario Jim Simpson should be commended for reviving Billy the Kid and Lillian Mortimer’s No Mother to Guide Her. Vivacious revivals they are, even if the plays don’t entirely translate: In productions as arch and sophisticated as Simpson’s, melodrama’s emphasis on virtue, sentiment, and heightened emotions doesn’t play so well. Fortunately, the adventure and daring do.
Like the dog in the old saw who limps into the bar on three legs, Billy the Kid (a cross-cast Simone White) is looking for the man who shot his Pa . . . and his Ma, and started Billy on a life of crime. In pursuit of the villainous Denver (Tim Cummings), Billy is aided by his Irish sidekick Con (Jack O’Neill), his lady love Nellie (Nicole Kovacs), and hampered by a mess of cowboys, saloon girls, and bounty hunters.
Simpson employs many of the same directorial tricks he used in Benton Kozo and other past productions: live music, broad characterization, lively costumes, physical activity punctuated by percussion. For the most part, these strategies work well, rendering the script playfully, without reliance on kitsch or camp. But they can’t make the central love story interesting. The jigging and cackling of Denver, the bumblings of the bounty hunters, the repartee between Con and his Slavic sweetheart Jennie (Meredith Perlman) all delight, but the billings and cooings of Billie and Nellie make you want to put a blanket over the lovebirds’ cage.
Stronger staging would have improved their scenes, as would better casting. White and Kovacs are both beautiful women, cutting charming figures in their respective trousers and skirts. But while they demonstrate emotional reach, they can’t quite synch those emotions to the words in their mouths—rendering Woods’s purple prose rather colorless.
If this journey west falters in the romance department, Simpson and costume designer Isabelle Rubio display a more confident handling of ethnic stereotype. Simpson has left in all the play’s questionable material. (Sample joke: Billy’s stepdad—an awesome turn by Angela Tweed—asks why the “niggers” aren’t working on the old well. “Billy’s using them for cattle,” Con replies. “He’s learning to be a roper, sir.”) But Simpson and Rubio cleverly undercut these stereotypes by exaggerating them. The band of bounty hunters, for instance, includes an Orthodox cowboy, a Swede gunslinger in lederhosen, and an Italian peculiarly garbed in full bead-and-moccasin regalia.
In No Mother to Guide Her, it’s a southward journey that causes all the trouble. When two criminals arrive from the Gomorrah of New York City, they commence a program of terror in a small farm community. On a visit to the big city, farmer’s daughter Rose (Cori Clark Nelson) secretly marries Ralph (Joe Holt), a bank robber intent on going straight. Livingstone (Dean Strange), Ralph’s partner, wants Rose for himself and convinces Ralph to engage in one last heist. Livingstone’s abandoned paramour Bess (Beth Tapper) and her spirited friend Bunco (Leila Howland) also arrive in town, providing further complications. Adding to the commotion is Livingstone’s sidekick, Mother Taggert, an infanticidal gypsy.
Taggert is played by Jennifer McKenna, a dwarf, who at first seems an unfortunate victim of David Lynch-ian stunt casting, but quickly reveals herself as a splendid villainess. Howland nails Bunco, a gunslinging pipsqueak with a mastery of New Yawk vernacular. As in Billy the Kid, these secondary characters are both more intriguing and better performed than their more sentimental counterparts.
Simpson’s direction here appears less precise than in Billy the Kid, though he ably communicates Rose’s claustrophobic experiences and highlights the heartening fashion in which many of the female characters protect each other. If the love stories haven’t worn so well, the sensation, violence, and uneasy resolution of these plays still seem remarkably fresh. Mother Taggert may intone, “Oh, this is a sad, sad world.” But these are, for the most part, very happy revivals.