National Pastime Theater
By Justin Hayford
Sometimes adversity engenders genius. Had Einstein not been stuck as a lowly clerk in a patent office where his mind was free to wander beyond the confines of conventional science, would he have reinvented the universe?
Something similar seems to have happened at National Pastime Theater–though on a much smaller scale. In June the company found itself facing insurmountable odds. Artistic director Laurence Bryan was planning a stage adaptation of the classic Hollywood western High Noon as the opening show of the company’s new season. Rehearsals were to begin in two weeks. But with the cast assembled and hundreds of feet of film in the can–the company had shot cowboys on horses galloping through deserts on location in Arizona–Bryan discovered he couldn’t get the rights to the story: Aaron Spelling’s company had recently acquired them.
Desperate, Bryan turned to former Chicagoan Michael Sokoloff and said, “Write me a western. And do it in 14 days.” Their last collaboration had been the 1995 Kirkos, a clunky postapocalyptic embarrassment that Sokoloff today describes as “overwritten and underproduced.” This sudden new project looked like a disaster waiting to happen.
But Sokoloff’s new script, Yuba City, was in hand by the time rehearsals started on July 7. And though it’s no work of genius and won’t change our conception of the world, Sokoloff like Einstein let his imagination digress from the orthodox and created a marvel–a marvel easily mistaken for a dud.
As a conventional play, which it closely resembles, Yuba City is a failure. Sokoloff’s story is the stuff of melodrama, not serious art: Somewhere out in the old west stands a lonely whorehouse owned by Shave, a black frontiersman. He and his two buxom employees live unfettered lives at this remote outpost, visited often by the simpleton Willie, fond of smoking a weed that gives him hypnotic visions. Local entrepreneur Sam knows that the railroad is headed their way, and rumors of a gold strike suggest that prospectors by the thousands will arrive on his doorstep, where he can fleece them as the self-appointed mayor of this unnamed, nascent town. His sheriff is Jones, an outlaw who literally shoots people for looking at him funny. Their plan: kill all the niggers and whores by funneling them through a kangaroo court, thereby convincing newcomers to settle in their law-abiding hamlet.
Sokoloff’s script is anything but subtle. His characters are two-dimensional, his plot utterly predictable. By all accounts it’s a lousy play. But Sokoloff didn’t write a conventional drama; he wrote a mythic allegory that happens to unfold on a stage. And, as in any myth, the actions are sweeping, the characters elemental, the plot inevitable. Nothing is believable, yet everything is profoundly true.
Bryan, who directs, wisely establishes a quasi-mythological unreality right from the start. The first “scene” lasts a fraction of a second, as a blast of white light illuminates Willie center stage in a stovepipe hat, rectangular sunglasses, and a cascade of auburn locks; the retinal afterimage of Willie lasts longer than his physical presence. Bryan repeats this process three times, adding a new character with each new explosion of light, plunging the spectator into a bewildering, ephemeral world. Then a match is struck in the darkness, and as Willie begins to smoke his pipe, images of cowboys galloping through the desert are splashed across the back of the stage. Meanwhile live guitars and conga drums throb offstage.
Many directors use similar opening sequences as pure decoration, setting aside attention to style and impact in favor of “reality” once the play proper starts. But Bryan maintains a sophisticated aesthetic mix for the play’s entire 90 minutes. He hasn’t so much directed the script as orchestrated it, working overtime to find the rhythms and tones that drive Sokoloff’s fable. Sometimes those rhythms are punctuated by Milk-Baby’s live musical accompaniment, sometimes by dancelike explosions of stage combat. But mostly Bryan finds the rhythms where too many directors never bother to look–in the text itself. The characters in Yuba City speak in an almost choral fashion, their voices interweaving and overlapping; discordant pitches provide a bracing counterpoint. Often embellishing or finishing one another’s thoughts, the characters are not so much human beings as instruments, tossing lines and themes back and forth like players in an orchestra. We “believe in” this story the way we believe in a symphony.
No one in this production makes an effort to convince us that they’re truly living in the old west. Such an approach would sink the show in a second, because Sokoloff’s old west is really the American psyche–or, rather, its dark underside. This is a world driven by one force: self-interest. Waving the banner of progress, the mayor and the sheriff can justify any action so long as it has the potential to increase their wealth and power. They set out to kill blacks not simply because they’re racist but because blacks would make their investment in a boomtown unprofitable. Their greed allows them to dehumanize those who stand in their way; after the sheriff kills his first black man, he props up the corpse and poses with it for a photograph, a safari hunter displaying his booty.
Like the contemporary corporate forces that conspire to turn city neighborhoods into franchise outlets indistinguishable from one another, the forces of “legitimacy” in Yuba City aim to crush all irregularity and individuality. They imagine their town solely as a market, its inhabitants solely as consumers. Those with dissident dreams–here embodied in the rube Willie, the quintessential American folk hero–will be paved over, their dreaming defined as immoral, unlawful, and dangerous.
Like all myths, Sokoloff’s work teaches a simple lesson about greed; just as the Coen brothers did in Fargo, he finds deep resonance in a stark fairy tale. Sure, a few thousand artists before Sokoloff have warned us about the same things. But in a nation that mistakes profitability for virtue and self-interest for civic-mindedness (Bill Gates, anyone?), this tale can’t be told often enough.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.