Monday, March 3, 2008

THEATRE REVIEW, When Ya Comin' Back Red Ryder?

The American Repertory Theater
Feb. 22 - March 9
Rating: $$$

$$$$$ Five Bills - Excellent

$$$$ Four Bills - Good

$$$ Three Bills - Fair

$$ Two Bills - Not Recommended

$ One Bill -Poor

Mark Medoff's, "When Ya Comin' Back Red Ryder?", is a disturbing and violent modern drama of heroic American ideals biting the dust in the horse opera tradition of it's namesake, Red Ryder, a 1940's western action comic strip which became, among other media icons, a serialized movie series. The name was brought to nostalgic prominence in the form of a Red Ryder BB gun in director Bob Clark's classic 1983 comedy film, "A Christmas Story".

Just as the Red Ryder BB gun is a nasty and dangerous representation of the gentle famed cowboy, this play slanders such heroic deeds by lassoing the corny righteous themes of movie house western serials, ("When ya comin' back Red Ryder?", "Not until them varmint outlaws is caught!"), by comparing a violent incident in a New Mexico diner with America's rather small statured exit from The Vietnam War. But this is not an historic period piece. In Medoff's examination of a changing America "at the end of the sixties", (the designated time frame of the play, which could conceivably be anywhere into the 1970's), comparisons could be made to the Iraqui conflict, as the play tightens a noose around fantastic heroic behavior when it is forced to reveal a lack of valor while confronted with a threat of violence.

At it's core, with all it's disarming bravado of a failed war, and it's lament of a gentler more peaceful time, the play possesses a stark and simple violence, the kind of unexpected social confrontation one might experience as you're parking a car, shopping in a grocery store, or as are the characters in the play, sitting in a diner. It may be inspred by William Inge's classic play, "Bus Stop", also concerning people trapped in a diner, but where the undertow of violence lies unborn in Inge's play, it erupts in a fury in Medoff's "Ryder".

The American Repertory Theater of WNY's production of "When Ya Comin' Back Red Ryder?", it's second production after "Axeman's Jazz" earlier this season, makes the most of the physical action so important to the psychological tension of the play. Characters bully, slap, punch, push and stalk each other with such vehemence, it's as if the boundary between audience and stage may be violated. Director Matthew La Chuisa's action sequences are well staged and advance the play at a, do I dare say, galloping pace.

The ensemble cast is in generally fine form, with Andrew Michalski, outstanding as psychotic Vietnam veteran Teddy, walking a fine line of whacked out drug damage and profound liberating prophet. His many moods, at once passive and antidotal, becoming violent and frenzied, shift with the expertise of a genuine gifted lunatic. Nick Dostal, in the adopted name title role, possesses the anxiety-ridden, war draft threatened, disaffected youth of the era, with gloom and budding heroism as he's forced to confront his inner cowboy at a time of personal peril. Heather Viloanti, as the shy, plain diner waitress, Angel, reveals complexities of her character in an amusing and quietly sorrowful performance which is the heart, and hope of the play. Director La Chuisa, in the role of Lyle Striker, the aging infirmed owner of the neighboring gas station, is a solid and strong patriarch of the ensemble, although his severe limp would have been more effective had it been staged with the noted written prop of an aluminum brace, which would have encompassed the cold and cruel nature of the Vietnam era. Linda Stein and Michael Liszcrynski as an out-of-town couple are convincing and exciting to watch, as horrified and indignant customers who unfortunately stumble into the diner. Emily Littler, as Teddy's girlfriend, Cheryl, has a much smaller psychological space to work from, but like Americans of the '60's watching The Vietnam War unfold on the nightly news, she projects an innocent yet compliant accomplice to violence.

Playwright Mark Medoff, who won the off-Broadway Obie Award in 1974 for "When Ya Comin' Back Red Ryder?", and is the author of the more recognized, "Children of A Lesser God", wrote "Red Ryder" as an ensemble piece, and this production is slightly damaged by the absence of the character of Clark, the owner of the diner, which was cut from the production. The character represents a small time corporate greed, somewhat symbolic to the low wage income earners of the diner, and his vital presence and spoken lines, assigned to other characters, is clumsy and mars the dramatic flow of the tense situation and dialogue.

Still, this production is as exciting and unnerving as witnessing a bank holdup. Like escaping a dangerous fate, it offers appreciation for getting out alive.

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