Fans of the Western might have noticed that it’s not so easy to mount one on a live stage, where the big sky will always look fake and cheesy. Fights and stunts, even if they look OK, are dangerous, and how can you do a Western without wide-angle shots of horses and stagecoaches? We all know the Western has a look and feel that was made for film.
Well, shut my mouth, were we wrong! Dead Man’s Shoes (by local playwright Joe Zettelmaier) is not only a fine Western, it’s found a way to make its low-tech staginess into a virtue. It’s presented as a kind of medicine show, with hand-cranked scenery, and each scene foretold in song, the way Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye sang out the story of Cat Ballou. The wide-open spaces aren’t needed, because most of the story is set in jails and broken-down saloons. Actors make their own sound effects–nary a door opens unless someone backstage is making a creaking noise. Dead Man’s Shoes isn’t exactly a spoof on a Western but more like a loving tribute writ joyously large.
Like many a good cowboy yarn, it’s a tale of two buddies who are opposites in every way. These two are Injun Bill Picote (Drew Parker), a man of few words, in single-minded pursuit of the man who killed his best friend; and his sidekick Froggy (Aral Gribble)–words seems to dribble from him like water from a leaky canteen, and he can’t see farther ahead than his next meal. The plot twists are best kept fresh, and in any case there are too many to describe. Too many to watch? Possibly, but what scenes could be cut? The hilarious bit where Froggy finds himself in a bordello–oops, don’t want to give too much of that away–could probably be dispensed with, but it’s one of the funniest scenes in the show and provides grist for many subsequent jokes.
Instead of spoiling the plot, I’ll just give another note on the humor-challenged, single-minded Injun Bill. When someone tells him to stop and smell the flowers once in awhile, it turns out that he has literally never smelled a flower. (In the last scene he gingerly picks up a lily and sniffs like it’s about to bite him.)
I saw Dead Man’s Shoes in its maiden voyage at the charming Williamston Theatre (with apologies to the community, Williamston itself seems a little ghost town-esque, which helped set the mood). The production moved intact to the Performance Network in March for a run that continues every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, plus Sunday afternoons, through April 8.