The Wild West. The land of gold and promise; where there’s a black and white line drawn in the dust between the good guys and the bad guys, the outlaws and the sheriffs; the place where it was every man for themselves and you didn’t get your claim of land from the bank, you got it by staking a fence around the area you wanted and shooting the ass off of anyone who walked by. All of the glory of riding the trails, robbing banks, and stealing the girl; what if all that had faded away and you were the last of your kind? A dying breed of rogue villain with no horse, no name, and no one to remember you? What would be said at your funeral? Would anyone come? Would anyone care? You’ll find out in this Western shoot-out as the Audrey Herman Spotlights Theatre presents Marsha Norman’s The Holdup.
Directed by Michael Spellman this show gives the audience a chance to experience the last of the Wild West outlaws as that breed and era fizzle out of existence. Four very compelling characters are set to the stage, each with a rich personality and separate story to tell. Spellman’s best work is displayed in the portrayals of these characters, each of the actors getting so far into the deep recesses of the characters thoughts and emotions. Spellman crafts a feeling of 1914 Clovis, New Mexico, way out in the desert away from civilization and all rational thought, doubling as the dialect coach to give each of the characters the appropriate vocal drawl for their time.
The set is simplistic and the costumes are left mostly to their own devices. Save for the cook wagon, designed by Alan Zemla, which brings the derelict feeling of premonitory death in the desert to life, the rest of the wild west is left up to the audience’s imagination; taking you back to that time in your childhood when you played cowboys and Indians; where the couch was a cactus patch and the family dog might have been your horse. But here the danger is real; the guns are pointed and the shoot-outs are hostile.
The intensity with which these actors play their parts really makes them captivate every moment of the audience’s attention. Even when there are lulls in the speech, or simple moments of nothing happening, you’re strung on the edge of your seat because of the tension that has built to that point or the big moment that’s about to explode. Spellman eases natural pauses out of the actors when they’re needed and he paces the show so that each line is absorbed but not overworked.
The two brothers, Archie (David Shoemaker) and Henry (Zak Zeeks) have an incredibly volatile approach to one another. Zeeks is the older and more experienced brother who borders on verbally abusive with Shoemaker, but as the younger less learned fellow he holds his own. From the beginning they have a bitter sibling rivalry between them, their tempers flaring up like a wildfire blazing out of control when they begin to fight with one another.
Shoemaker digs deep into the ignorance and naiveté of Archie in the first act. He embodies this dumb-as-post while still knowing things urchin who just crawls under everyone’s skin with his less than bright comments and its wildly amusing. It brings moments of laughter to brighten otherwise horrendously intense moments. He is the most compelling person to watch and he almost never leaves the stage. Even when he’s tied up and not actively involved with the scene you find your eyes drifting to his antics as he attempts to pay attention to what’s going on, all the while fiddling with his rope in a manner most entertaining.
Zeeks is the powderkeg of the show. Constantly lighting his own fuse and exploding at everyone and everything, he keeps the stakes high and the tension consistent. He has years of pent up anger, rage, and frustration bursting forth from his lips at top vocal volume and each emotion comes racing out in an attack, mostly against Henry, until The Outlaw shows up.
When Zeeks begins to face off against The Outlaw (Frank Vince) you get the feeling that you’re standing right on the dusty main street at high noon for a quick-draw to the death. They circle each other like real cowboys; the good guy and the bad guy and the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife. Zeeks and Vince start firing off their mouths and tempers before they ever fire their guns but with the level of passion and emotion that they do they might as well have guns for mouths.
Vince as the rugged has-been outlaw is nothing short of an old west train wreck. He’s cocky, overly emotional at times, desperately clinging to the days of yestyore and the threads of his former glory. He never loses the energy of a pacing caged animal, spinning himself around and around like a poisonous viper ready to strike at any moment. We do see the softer side of Vince’s character at moments of loving interaction with the Miss Kitty figure of the show, Lily (Stephanie Ranno.) Playing the mild but wild woman of the west, the woman of the saloon who nobody messes with, Ranno provides a delightfully saucy yet refined female character who can easily put Vince in his place without losing any of her ladylike charm.
Don’t let this treasure in the dust fade away like the Wild West did; grab your guns and spurs, hop on that last horse into town and catch sight of The Holdup before it sinks west under the sunset.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
The Holdup plays through July 29, 2012 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre – 817 Saint Paul Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.