Sunday, May 16, 2010

White Woman Street

Photo/Carol Rosegg

It's easy to wax romantic for the rustic American, circa 1916, a sort of tumbleweed hero who, disillusioned by the land's bloody enterprises (particularly the Indian Wars) and enchanted by the wide open spaces (and possibilities) of the outdoors, turns to mild banditry to earn a living. It's much harder to get worked up by Sebastian Barry's ambling White Woman Street, a series of poems masquerading as monologues disguised as threadbare play. From the choppy cadence of the Ohioan syntax (e.g., "Water in winter, sweat in summer, two useless thing that everyone got") to the plodding pace (no spurs could move this dead horse of a play), the show is too slippery to focus on for more than a few minutes at a time, and it's not helped by Charlotte Moore's listless direction. (The wooden horses the actors "ride" are about as animated as some of these scenes.)

If there were a plot, Barry wouldn't find it necessary to open the play with a man's wistful remembrance of the Irish homeland of his childhood, nor to announce that "I can't go till peace is made, till I stand again in White Woman Street, and beg a certain ghost for her good word." But as the only thing prodding this play along is the forced camaraderie of Trooper (Stephen Payne) and his troupe of gentle outlaws--English Blakely (Greg Mullavey), religious Mo Mason (Gordon Stanley), the Russian Brooklynite Nathaniel (Evan Zes, the standout of the bunch), and their excitable cook, James (Charlie Hudson III)--Barry is forced to simply drift in and out of monologues and memories, creating a ghostly, wearisome play. Even the actual out-of-the-blue action, like a deer hunt or the robbery of a gold train, winds up looking awful--perhaps because the sight of five old men riding fake horses and whooping doesn't actually carry the weight of very much drama.

Barry's a poetic writer, and as a result he works well with monologues. But whereas that writing was focused on two characters and a story in his smashing The Pride of Parnell Street, it slops all over the place in White Woman Street. The standout images ("Sometimes her arms were just rainbows. She smelled of the fires of soap") are lost in the bland stretches of their journey toward the redemptive town of White Woman Street (so named for the single white prostitute all the men used to visit), and though every character gets their own background-boosting monologue, this added knowledge doesn't actually play out in their exaggerated interactions.

Perhaps the lack of cohesion--particularly the abrupt ending--is meant to reflect Trooper's inner disconnect with his adopted country. But that's precisely the problem with White Woman Street: it's all bottled up within a reclusive man, and there's not much fun in watching such a docile man dodder around, sharing only the safe and boring memories that allow him to remain so unaffected.

No comments: