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