What is a hero? How far will the power of belief take a person? Can a cycle of violence perpetuated by vengeance and fear be broken? In an age when the nation fights an “Axis of Evil” as opposed to a specific country, when we hunt generically dubbed terrorists, when nationalism is so force-fed that we can’t go to a ball game without singing “G-d Bless America,” these are vital questions. Tooth & Nil Theatre Company and Austin-based playwright Dan Dietz attempt to explore these issues in a production of Dietz’s new play, Blind Horses.
Although Tooth & Nil’s intentions are noble, their execution leaves much to be desired. Frank James intervenes at the moment of brother Jesse’s death, resurrecting Jesse and transforming him into a folk hero through a medicine show, commodifying his fame. Through flashbacks, Jesse explores his own legend and finds that he’s doomed to relive his death over and over again. Racial politics aside, Dietz’s piece feels highly derivative of Suzan-Lori Parks and her exploration of the Abraham Lincoln myth in The America Play and Topdog/Underdog. Structurally the play is uneven, vacillating between riveting scenes of sibling rivalry in the medicine show and meandering flashbacks of Jesse’s life. The flashbacks each begin with a long-winded monologue that only sucks whatever momentum was gained from the previous scene.
Director Jonathan Mazer doesn’t help the script’s weaknesses. Although the staging technique of creating a form and then breaking it is fascinating, Mazer has forgotten to actually commit to anything long enough to establish a pattern. What’s left is a love letter to his own precociousness. The three main actors, Travis York (Jesse), Eric Alan Scott (Frank), and Courtney Cunningham (the Vaudevillian) are truly captivating, though, and make the evening bearable, but their supporting cast ranges from blandly ineffectual (Jennifer Bryan as Zee and Eric Cross as Pinkerton) to completely disconnected (Elsie James as Ma). Blind Horses is ultimately a frustrating experience: Tooth & Nil seem to be sharp enough to ask the big questions, but they’ve yet to learn how to explore them.