KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 30, 2001
“The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” is a study in contrasts: a folk hero who was a cold-blooded killer; an adventure story of young men who shoot folks for fun; a tightrope walk between sanity and lunacy; a tale of ultra-violence told in lyrical poetry; the rough, gritty life of the Old West sung in sweet, sentimental country/folk songs.
Michael Ondaatje, Des McAnuff, Kate Whoriskey and the La Jolla Playhouse make for a wonderfully felicitous collaborative team. Booker Prize-winning novelist Ondaatje, best known for “The English Patient,” has re-tooled the stage version of his 1970 prose-poem, and McAnuff has made it sing. McAnuff composed songs for earlier incarnations of the play, starting 27 years ago. He’s reworked the originals and added new, tuneful melodies. He and co-director Whoriskey have nearly nailed this non-linear demythologizing of The Kid and The West — and though it isn’t quite as haunting or chilling as it is on the page, it’s a wondrous sight to see.
Mark Wendland’s deceptively simple, rough-hewn, weathered-wood set, highlighted by Robert Perry’s moody lighting and Michael Roth’s eerie soundscape, offer varied levels and movements and multiple playing spaces. The dark drama leap-frogs in time, proceeding from and back to Billy’s death in 1880. In monologues, ballads and soliloquies, we get various views of young William Bonney and his legendary, mostly unmotivated murders — his first at age 12, and 19 more before he himself was gunned down at age 21. We hear his thoughts, see inside his head, follow him down a sun-induced, hallucinogenic hole, and keep trying to understand why he was so addicted to violence, and why we still are today. There are riveting images but no answers here, and no clear lessons from a glimpse into the heart and soul of a poetic serial killer.
Shawn Hatosy’s Billy is discomfortingly likable, though insufficiently charismatic — a smirky murderer who drips poetry as much as blood, a boy who knows no bounds, has no home, who must kill to live, destroy to create. He moves like a cougar, talks out of the side of his mouth and sings like an untrained cowboy. His female friends, repressed and lovelorn Sallie Chisum and rowdy, bawdy Angela Dickinson, are powerfully portrayed by Susan Berman and Nicole DeHuff. Mike Genovese does some of his best work as John Chisum, gruff host and business-like betrayer. And Gary Cole is a sullen, methodical Pat Garrett, a gunslinger who painstakingly pursues his prey. Though he kills Billy (twice, in a spectacular coup de théâtre), he also cleans him up, sells the bullets to the local newspaper, and writes the biography that solidifies Billy’s long-term star status. Just another ironic juxtaposition in a stunning, often startling production.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.