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The Collected Works of Billy the Kid 

Michael Ondaatje re-examines an American legend

Wednesday, Oct 11 2000
Michael Ondaatje's 1970 multimedia collection of prose, poetry, eyewitness accounts, and even comic book excerpts re-examines an American legend. Ondaatje also fashioned the material into a play, relocating and cutting passages, reassigning some existing monologues, and turning the poems into soliloquies. Kaliyuga Arts and director Steven Patterson mount this difficult show with some disappointing results. (Dramatizing the book is inherently dangerous: Reading it, we know Billy doesn't talk like this, but in a theatrical adaptation, he can't avoid it.) John Sowles provides a beautiful set -- loose-gapped clapboard walls, a raised, planked floor, and a stenciled Victorian pediment -- but the floor is noisy with clomping cowboy boots. The execrable acoustics of the Marsh's gymlike Upstairs Studio only make things worse. Patterson stages several sequences while furniture and set pieces are lugged around, and you can't understand a word. The raucous scenes involving Billy's gang are also forced and messy. There are some nice moments: the music that plays as John Chisum (Paul Gerrior) tells a baroque tale of mad dogs, Billy describing oranges on the bed ("bright as hidden coins") in a post-coital scene, and a boisterous rendering of a comic book story. Michael McAllister's Billy has a relaxed, amiable presence and an attractive grin, but he lacks a strong voice: His aspirated tenor gets muffled and lost. Lawrence Motta possesses great stage presence as Pat Garrett, and as Sallie Chisum, Marin Van Young is engagingly girlish though she overdoes her attraction for Billy. Carolyn Doyle lacks bawdiness as Billy's girl, Angela Dickinson, but in the comic book sequence ("You are mucho hombre, Yanqui, very much man!"), she's energized and alive. If Patterson dealt with the acoustical problems more creatively, ensuring the clarity of Ondaatje's language, this show might be better theater. As it is, the play seems clogged with incomprehensible singsong, and Ondaatje's poetry is lost.

About The Author

Joe Mader


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