Review: ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’ at The Catholic University of America

Andrew Earle Simpson. Photograph by John Armato © 2010.
Andrew Earle Simpson. Photograph by John Armato © 2010.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat is the story of six uncanny people trapped together as they take shelter during a blizzard. Adapted from Bret Harte’s 1869 story of the same name, the one-act chamber opera by Composer/Librettist Andrew Earle Simpson and Director James Hampton showcased an immensely talented cast and crew at The Catholic University of America.

Set during the Gold Rush era in California, we meet a John Oakhurst (John Gibney), a gambler, who is in the company of two prostitutes, Lori (Kristin Green Longwood) and Cassie (Jennifer Dunn), and a drunkard and thief named Uncle Billy (Tre’Von Bray) on their way to Sandy Bar (“March of the Grotesques,” “The Whiskey Party”). They cross paths with a young prospector named Tom Simson (Edward Kerrick) and his betrothed, Piney Woods (Anna Kelly), a young couple on their way to Poker Flat to get married.

After a discussing the plans ahead and realizing that both groups are too far away from their final destinations to be able to make it by nightfall, they decide to camp out together in a cabin by the road in order to get ready for the long journey ahead the next day. However, when the group wakes up the next day, they discover that the drunkard and thief Billy (“They’re All a Bunch o’ Fools”) has stolen their horses, and to their dismay, they are now snowed in by a blizzard that doesn’t seem to give any indications of slowing down. As the days pass by and the rations slowly shrink in size, this group of strangers now has to learn how tolerate each other in order to survive until, hopefully one day soon, the path clears for each to continue their journey.

Starting with a simple and bare stage only adorned by the visual imagery of Video Designer Nicholas Ferrario, Scenic Designer Dean Leong slowly and cleverly shaped the space into the cabin as the opera progressed. Brian S. Allard’s light design complimented the visual imagery by capturing the passing of days in the cabin. And finally, The Washington National Opera provided the beautiful era specific costumes, capturing the full visual spectrum and feel of the 19th-century California Gold Rush era set for The Outcasts of Poker Flat.

Simpson’s score draws on American folk and country music that perfectly captures the era. From “The Whiskey Party” and “The Tiny Mountain Chickadee,” the cast performed the score sensationally. In a tie for my favorite moments, which we can luckily revisit in the audio clips available in Andrew E. Simpson’s website, are “Cassie’s Saloon Song” as infectiously radiantly performed by Jennifer Dunn, and the beautifully emotional “The Wings of a Dove” performed by the three women in the cast, Jennifer Dunn, Kristin Green Longwood, and Anna Kelly.

Germán García Vargas (and David Bond on November 17th and 19th) conducted The Catholic University of America Symphony Orchestra, whicj included the following exceptional musicians: Alexandra Chappell (clarinet), Nicholas Castravas (piano and dancehall piano), John Henderson (accordion), Chris de Chiara (percussion), Junjie Piao (violin), and John Park playing contrabass, as they filled the Ward Recital Hall with era parlor and saloon tunes.

I am hoping that other productions of The Outcasts of Poker Flat, (or, Two Prostitutes, a Thief, and a Gambler walk into a Bar) will be seen soon on many opera stages and universities around the globe. This glorious score and relevant and timely story need to be seen and heard.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.


The Outcasts of Poker Flat played from Thursday, November 17 – Sunday, November 20, 2016 at Ward Recital Hall  at The Catholic University of America – 620 Michigan Avenue NE, in Washington, DC. For future CUA performances and information, check their calendar.

Composer/Librettist Andrew Earle Simpson on ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’, His New One-Act Chamber Opera Playing at Catholic University Through Sunday 11/20/16.

Capital Fringe Review: ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’ by Joel Markowitz.

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