at the Henry Strater Theatre, Durango, on 1st August 2010
We are often told in the UK that Americans don’t get pantomime. Why do we boo and hiss characters on stage? Is overacting really necessary? Durango Melodrama’s production of George M.Cohan’s The Tavern, however, under the direction of Bryan Rasmussen, proves that Americans are in fact perfectly at home in this situation, and that in fact they pull it off better than us.
The plot is billed as “uncomplicated”, but this isn’t really true. During a stormy night, various strangers turn up at a mid-western tavern, some of whom have been robbed and others shot at. This naturally leads to some very farcical happenings, all of which is presided over by The Vagabond, who comments on the action for the benefit of the audience. Needless to say, everyone lives happily ever after and we are treated to many great gags.
The Tavern is not your average melodrama. Whilst we have the traditional setting of a small public space, the characters are not of the usual stock. In melodrama we normally see a hero, a heroine, a villian, a parent and a clown. In this piece, only the parent and the clown are clear; the would-be hero is effeminate and cowardly, and we never see the villain of the piece do anything truly villainous. This is refreshing – far too often in melodrama the stock characters hinder any true debate to occur or tension to take hold.
This is where this company has surpassed any British expectations for melodrama. For once, we see true narrative drive and some real character development. The story keeps us guessing and yet never gets tedious. This is obviously helped by the talent on show. Danny Blaylock does a brilliant turn as the confused, Lenny-from-Of-Mice-And-Men-like hired man, and Amanda Musso as Virginia the governer’s daughter is at once sexy and innocent. Dominating the show, however, is K.C. Sullivan as the Vagabond. Sullivan has clearly taken inspiration from the harlequin of commedia del’arte, and whilst the other characters take themselves completely seriously, he is able to see the true farce of the situation and is not afraid to share this wonder with us. He even directs a scene at one point, saying he “never heard the line spoken so well”. He is the vessel through which the story is told, and we cannot help but go with him.
It is also through the protagonist that one of the main themes is expressed – why aren’t we able to see that the life which we lead is actually full of “comic situations” and may “turn out to be a farce after all”? He shows that we all need a link between the internal and external, between our involved and distant selves.
Perhaps the only criticism would be that the ending feels too easy, but in actual fact the final denoument could be argued to be wholly satisfying, explaining past events and finishing the play off in a clean fashion. In any case, this small oversight is more than made up for by the vaudeville showcase available for free after the show itself, performed by the very actors we have just seen. My hat comes off to the whole ensemble, who worked together effortlessly and who all put their all into both parts of the evening.
This show is another example of a rallying call in Ameirca to British writers and theatremakers to make good melodrama. It doesn’t have to be tacky and predictable. If done right, it can actually be an extremely rewarding night out. Let’s try and take up the baton during this year’s panto season. For once, we should be striving to create real narrative intrigue and carefully crafted characters.