Renegade Theatre Company

at the Raven Theatre

I’ve always wondered about the sudden eruption in the late 70s and early 80s of plays, movies, and television shows (such as Letterman) concerned in one way or another with the confusion of illusion and reality. Was it part of an unacknowledged, perhaps unconscious national debate on the power of movies and television to muddle our perceptions of the world–to the extent that we not only confuse appearance with reality but actually prefer the company of imaginary characters to that of cranky, annoying real human beings?

I have no way of knowing whether professor/playwright Mark Medoff, best known as the author of Children of a Lesser God, consciously intended The Majestic Kid to be part of this phenomenon. But there can be no doubt that this play, first produced in 1982, is a comic critique of mass media very much in the spirit of Being There and Purple Rose of Cairo (though structurally it more closely resembles Woody Allen’s 1969 play Play It Again, Sam).

Cunningly set “somewhere out west” and “during Ronald Reagan’s presidency,” the play concerns Peter Pan-like Aarron, who one day finds himself plunged into a personal crisis when he impulsively runs away from both his career as an environmental lawyer and his longtime live-in girlfriend and law partner, A.J. From the depths of despair he unconsciously calls into being his boyhood hero, the Laredo Kid. Cast in the mold of such famous singing cowboys as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Tom Mix, the Laredo Kid lives in a universe as simple and free of moral ambiguities as Ronald Reagan’s or that of a pre-Sam Peckinpah western.

Unfortunately, Aarron lives in a much more complex world. Which means that, at every turn, the Laredo Kid can be counted on for the worst possible advice (a marvelous source of comedy in the script). When Aarron falls in love with rancher Lisa Belmondo, for example, the sexist Laredo Kid assumes that Aarron’s role is to protect her from the corrupt Judge Finlay, though in fact it’s Aarron who’s continually saved by Lisa in these unsuccessful tangles with the judge.

If this were all there was to Medoff’s play, The Majestic Kid would be little more than a western-style Play It Again, Sam with a singing cowboy in Humphrey Bogart’s role. Medoff’s play is more complex than Allen’s play, however. For one thing, Medoff plays no ideological favorites–he skewers liberal and conservative sacred cows with equal glee. The Reaganite Judge Finlay wants all the land in the valley for a toxic-waste dump, while the Native Americans, who A.J. and Aarron argue “love and respect the land,” want all of it for a huge resort complex complete with condos and hotels. Medoff thus reveals–to us and to Aarron–that the world is a far more complicated place than is dreamt of even in Judge Finlay’s cynical philosophy.

Of course Medoff’s finely crafted, difficult play wouldn’t be worth a hill of beans if director Mark Liermann and his seven-member cast weren’t up to its demands. Happily, they are capable of negotiating both the play’s comic moments and its more serious notes, and the play flourishes.

Patrick Hatton in particular is so sympathetic as Aarron Weise that we cannot help but empathize with his predicament, even as we recognize how childish it is for a man 30-plus to rebel against adult responsibilities. Similarly, Kris Buckley from the get-go is so likable as iron butterfly Lisa Belmondo that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to hope she and Aarron get together by story’s end.

In fact there’s not a weak link in this ensemble. Even the most minor characters–ranch hands Hoot and Howl (Matthew Smith and Drew Wackerling, who double as stagehands)–add something to the show. The two best performances, however, come from Nelson Russo, who’s priceless as the sweet, naive, and wrongheaded Laredo Kid, and Karl Potthoff, who’s even better here as the archly evil Billy Finlay than he was as the gloriously hapless Screwtape in Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s recent stage version of The Screwtape Letters. Without these wonderful actors, this production would have been a distinctly slower, more somber show.

And a slower, more somber show would never have been able to accomplish half The Majestic Kid’s cunning critique of the simpleminded moral reasoning of the mass media.