Some performances stay with us a lifetime, vivid memories sparked by visceral reactions to the sights and sounds onstage. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje is one such a show. First staged in Victoria by the Belfry Theatre in 1993, in the full theatrical version, it unnerved me with its force. The powerful language painted pictures beyond anything I’d experienced to that point.
Ondaatje won his first Governor General’s award for this work in 1970; it has been adapted and re-worked many times since.
This collaborative work, where every cast member had input, is much closer to a staged reading – an ode to a bygone era, a tone poem that perfectly captures, as if in ambergris, the ethos and feel of a lawless time in the American West.
The six actors (Melissa Blank, Cam Culham, Molison Farmer, Michelle Mitschrich, Brin Porter and James Roney) take turns playing Billy the Kid, and rotate roles and genders with ease.
There is a certain ritualistic, elegiac nature to the actors’ speech – actions and words are heightened and emphasized; ordinary occurrences take on a tinge of the unusual and macabre – Billy is a man obsessed with blood and gore, his persona motivated at times quickly to rage. Overall, the audience sits on the edge of danger and menace for the entire play. When will violence erupt? Who will be the target?
Some of the gun battle sequences happen in slow motion, as if cartoons. There’s also a puppet (and ventriloquist). None of this is comedic in nature. Doom hangs in the air.
The scene where Billy (James Roney) hunts a frightened, injured cat (Molison Farmer) trapped in the floorboards of the farmhouse is chilling. And just as quickly, mood shifts to a good-times hoe-down, expertly choreographed by Richard Patterson. Original music for the entire production has been composed by Brin Porter; the actors themselves play guitars, mandolin, rattles, drum, ukulele, shakers, banjo and concertina.
Some of the poems are beautifully and hauntingly sung (I particularly remarked the vocal work of Michelle Mitschrich). From snippet to snippet, we are introduced to Billy’s friends and fellow outlaws, and his nemesis Pat Garrett.
The set (Robert Randall) is suggested by child-like signs and cut-outs. The clean lines of Kat Jeffrey’s costumes evoke the style of a copper-plated photo; the characters are fixed, in time, and in our minds. Nothing distracts from the words, as we revel in Ondaatje’s glorious language. This sparseness – of word, action and design – hints strongly at the environment that birthed the legend – the desert and high sierra.
William McCreadie died in 1981; 132 years later, this compelling interpretation of the life of the man known as Billy the Kid still has the ability to move us.
Theatre Inconnu continues to astonish me with the variety of their work. Bravo to the direction cast and crew of Billy the Kid for finding new ways to tell old stories with bravado and vulnerability, and never accepting the status quo.
Read more on the history of Billy the Kid here.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje & adapted with Dan Jemmett
Theatre Inconnu, 1923 Fernwood Road (Little Fernwood Hall)
November 27 to December 14
Tickets $14 through Ticket Rocket, online, over the phone, or in person
http://ticketrocket.org 250 590 6291
Clayton Jevne Director
Blair Moro Assistant Director
Richard Patterson Stage Manager & Hoedown Choreographer
Brin Porter Musical Direction and Original Music
Robert Randall Set Design & Poster Design
Kat Jeffery Costume Design
Set up crew Steven Aleck
Poster & program Robert Randall
Box Office Gordon Knappett
I received complimentary tickets to attend the opening night of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. As always, I retain complete editorial control over all the content published on my blog.