Billy the Kid’s last words were, coincidentally, the first words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, albeit in a different language. On July 14, 1881, upon entering a darkened room, Billy saw a shadowed figure and cried out, “Quien es? Quien es?” (“Who’s there? Who’s there?”) Then Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him.
That question—”Who’s there?”—haunts two collaborative theater projects, each featuring an enigmatic, perhaps unknowable, protagonist. SaBooge Theatre’s Every Day Above Ground, based on Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, concerns that famed outlaw. 6969, a production by CollaborationTown, attempts to theatricalize a true-crime tale of a Mancunian teenager who used the Internet to incite his own murder. Both plays illustrate the challenge of basing theater around elusive characters and of adapting difficult literary forms (Ondaatje’s poetry, Internet teenspeak) to the stage.
In an interview with a Las Vegas Gazette reporter a year before his death, Billy said, “I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have. You had to believe other stories.” More than a century after his death, much about Billy is still mysterious—his paternity, his real name, the number of men he killed. The stories are what remain. SaBooge Theatre, a Canadian outfit, has chosen some excellent ones drawn from Ondaatje’s text, an assemblage of prose, poems, and photographs that offers a nonlinear, multivocal memorial of the Kid, at once elegiac and profane.
Alumni of the famed Lecoq School in France, the members of SaBooge Theatre are adept physical actors. They perform Every Day in a tumult of eloquent movement. Hands dusty, hats torn, faces smeared in corpse-like make-up, they seem gritty and ethereal all at once. That grubby ghostliness doesn’t well serve the piece as a whole. Though visually gorgeous, the images never emotionally engage. As the piece opens (and closes) with Billy’s death, anticlimax is very much an issue.
SaBooge intends a kaleidoscopic portrait of Billy rather than a straightforward one—a commendable departure from the typical bioplay. But the prismatic result doesn’t accumulate so much as fracture. Nevertheless, SaBooge does establish itself as a company of skill and talent. As a friend said of the Kid, we might say of SaBooge: “He done some things I can’t endorse, but Kid certainly had good feelings.”
CollaborationTown’s 6969 also suffers a disconnect—a more severe one—between what it intends and what it achieves. Writer Jordan Seavey takes a 2003 case in which a 16-year-old Manchester boy stabbed his younger friend. The case’s investigators discovered that the 14-year-old, John, had solicited his own murder, using a variety of Internet identities to convince the older boy, Mark, to attack him. Seavey has relocated the action to America, but changed little of the story.
The attraction of this tale to theatermakers is obvious: It offers the chance to enact John’s various characters. But staging the Internet is always a test—one Seavey and director Matthew Hopkins don’t altogether pass. Though few scenes include actual typing, characters are nearly always separated by scrims, distancing them from each other and the audience. When Hopkins does bring the characters together, he seems puzzled about what to do with them. Slow-motion pat-a-cake and lots of jumping up and down feature.
Though Max Rosenak as John and Ryan Purcell as Mark give credible performances, neither they nor the script manage to make sense of why John wanted himself killed or why Mark would believe John’s improbable fictions. (Seavey does make the rather amusing suggestion that, as a Christian, Mark is primed to believe the unreasonable.) Instead of wrestling with the difficulties of the actual, they set numerous scenes as fantasies or nightmares. Consequently, the audience—unfamiliar with the source material—seemed confused, entangled in 6969‘s overwrought (Inter)net.