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Kate WestTar and Feathers
a kate west theater review

written and directed by Jesse Miller
the Lone Star Ensemble at the El Portal Theater
5269 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA
running June 9 - July 3, 2005; Thurs-Sun; Tix $15
contact (310) 410-1850 or www.lonestarensemble,com

 


"Tar and Feathers", now playing at the El Portal in "NoHo" (North Hollywood), is an unusual and original saga written by Jesse Miller, based on her own family's history. Her Scottish grandparents spent the 1930's laying down a tar road along historical Route 66, and a hard road it was, literally and symbolically. In the tradition of poetic epics, it is told in a stylized manner, which is a bit hard to follow at first.

The story opens in the 1950's with two frazzled Texan hillbillies perched on the edge of an ominous black tar road. Speedy (James D'Albora), direct descendent of the Scottish road laborers, the MacCrumbs, begins the tale in twangy Texan, peppered with short outbursts from wife Petunia (Molly Benson). He stutters while she stares vacantly into the distance, occasionally twitching her reaction to his speech. They are amusing caricatures of backward Texans and set the tone of slight absurdity.

Flash back to the 30's and we are introduced to the original MacCrumbs - a motley conglomerate of fatherless boys and girls and their Mum, all touched in different ways by working so long and hard on the unforgiving black road. Tree MacCrumb (earnest Travis Schuldt), is the mad artist of the family, creating strange images from road kill and tar, seeing the road as a kind of muse and surrogate mother. Patience (played exuberantly by Maggie Laine) thinks she's a boy and thinks she likes girls. The woeful Gracie (Lauren Maher) thinks she's her own grandfather Gideon and is the first to be driven mad by the road, alternating between the sweet, wide-eyed daughter and the paranoid wild-eyed grandfather. (Although it isn't until the second act that her grandfather character becomes clear.) Olaf (Caleb Moody) and Scottie (Brian Stanton) scuffle merrily like the two broad strapping lads they are and Mum (played with quiet intensity by Laura Carson) desperately tries to control the whole unruly bunch.

Again, the first half of the play is difficult to grasp at first, as one must get used to the writing style. The characters often speak in symbols and innuendoes and occasionally lapse into poetic prose. Also, the Scottish accents are uneven, some actors mastering it better than others. Not all the characters are simple to decipher either. For instance, only when Patience visits Gracie and explains her exasperation with her do we really understand that Gracie is actually split into two personalities.

Many of the scenes are repetitive, like a recurring chorus in a ballad, which may be effective in a literary sense, but at times leaves the audience a bit restless. The family demonstrates their work on the road with a ritualized dance and amusingly intermittent outbursts. This scene is played over and over again, which shows the audience how mindlessly repetitive that sort of work is, but we get the point early on. Also, each of the characters' interaction with the actual road is pretty similar. Still, it does provoke lively conversation during intermission.

Mother Road herself (Jennifer O'Kain) is the mysterious stranger who appears in black and seduces the whole lot of them. Her presence is somewhat jarring initially, as she is the only one without an accent, evidently representing a kind of neutral universe, which in this case might be America itself. She is the dark, physical manifestation of the road they are working on, which claims part of each of them in a terrible merciless way. Gracie is the first to go, the rest of them coping with the effects of the road as best they can. Most of them, like the ever-patient Mum, even go a little mad. Flashing forward again to the 1950's, we find our Texans living out their lives in the same weird way as before, perhaps having inherited some lingering madness themselves.

Jessie Miller's writing and directing are both fairly deliberate and the actors are all fairly strong, ranging from stylistic to realistic, depending on the requirements of the scene. The set is simple: a long, black road, with a screen off to the sides for makeshift living quarters and the occasional fantasy sequence. Sound Designer Erin Scott plays some richly atmospheric music, from country to the blues and Costume Designer Natalie Zea presents some wicked Scottish kilts. All in all, the production is quite thought provoking and involving, even despite audience confusion here and there. Luckily, all questions may be answered during a question-and-answer session on either June 18 or July 2. And that may be an ideal time to attend


 

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