It starts with a poker game. You know, one with a scarlet woman and a mysterious stranger. One with Colt pistols visible under the table and a bottle of whiskey nearby. But in The Hinterlands imaginative performance piece, Manifest DestinyI (There Was Blood on the Saddle), the scene never evolves as you would expect. There’s a climatic hand where everyone bets the works. An accusation of cheating. A cordial but firm invitation for a winning player to not leave the game. But as each moment of tension builds, it dissipates with an uncharacteristic shrug. “Yeah, I suppose I did cheat,” says the hooker with the heart of gold. “But I suppose we’ve all cheated some time or another.” The players nod and the game ends peacefully.
As with The Poker Game, Manifest DestinyI is a funhouse of familiar Wild West characters, scenes and stories. Billy the Kid (Richard Newman) is here. So is Calamity Jane (Liza Bielby). And Belle Starr, the so-called Bandit Queen (Eleni Zaharopoulos). There are barroom brawls (complete with a life-size, wind-up mariachi band to orchestrate the punches), waterless wanderings in the hot desert sun, and suspenseful showdowns in which you’re sure The Outlaw is finally going to get what’s coming to him. The horse-opera clichés seem ready to charge in like a cavalry riding over the ridge, but there’s always a surreal and often hilarious turnabout.
Manifest DestinyI isn’t just a send up a la Blazing Saddles. There are big, elemental ideas at work here. The Western, of course, has persisted because it lives deep in the American consciousness. And one of the masterstrokes here is the connection between the frontier and the theater, both places where an essential emptiness prompts flights of speculation and imagination.
Accordingly, like a covered wagon train, audience and performers wind through the space of Alverno’s Pitman Theatre from the lobby, to set pieces in the auditorium (including a rodeo race down the aisles), to the stage itself. There’s no question that this is a show--a Wild West Show within a show. A film montage puts our hosts (Jane and Billy) in the company of the original Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and later, we’re treated to a vaudeville-style “biography” of Jane that credits her real-life accomplishments along with her presence at the Kennedy assassination and the concert at which Michael Jackson performed the first “moon walk.”
Hinterlands describes its work as “physical theater.” While the writing of Manifest DestinyI is full of playful wit and insight, it is the physical performances of the five-member cast that stays with you (it also includes Dave Sanders and Steven DeWater). The actors inhabit their roles with mesmerizing commitment and concentration. And even the most basic gestures have a dance-like concentration and substance. In one scene, Newman sees a rain cloud on a desert horizon, and tries to wave it toward him. A simple gesture is repeated, gathering desperate energy each time, until it turns into a cathartic dance, his whole being turning to the one thing that will fend off his death.
Hinterlands took up residence in Milwaukee for a short time a few years ago, but eventually moved to Detroit. When I talked to Newman after the show, he talked about making Milwaukee a regular part of their performance schedule. That would be a great thing. As Manifest DestinyI shows, there are still new places to go in an artistic landscape that often seems too familiar and safe. Unlike the American West, that frontier is still wide open.