Matthew Reddin

The Hinterlands bring us the West, wild and crazy

By - Aug 20th, 2011 11:33 am
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“Manfest Destiny” takes the idea of the Wild West Show and reinvents it for a post-western frontier world.

Manifest Destiny (there was blood on the saddle) doesn’t make a lick of sense. From the minute you walk into the Pitman Theatre and find the cast playing cards in the lobby, to the end of the play where you’re toasting each other on the lawn outside, you’re utterly, fundamentally confused.

It’s absolutely marvelous.

Trying to describe the chaos that is Manifest Destiny, produced by Detroit theater group The Hinterlands and brought to Milwaukee for Alverno Presents’ second show, is a tall order, but thinking of it as a Wild West Show is a good place to start. The show deifies the western frontier, and there are horse races, musical numbers and historical reenactments galore.

But in describing those, you begin to get a sense of why Manifest Destiny is so hard to nail down. The horse races are on hobby horses, and audience members are asked to participate and cheer on competitors. The main musical number is a sing-along in which the cast suggests simply singing the word “blood” over and over if you can’t remember the words. The reenactments are often mundane scenarios like a man dying of thirst, in which Death comes to him wearing a serape and what appears to be a luchador’s mask.

Our guides on this atypical journey into the heart of the frontier are a quartet of boisterous archetypes and their silent partner (Dave Sanders).There’s gunslinger Billy the Kid (Richard Newman), the slightly mad Calamity Jane (Liza Bielby), seductive outlaw Belle Starr (Eleni Zaharopoulos) and the Stranger (Steven DeWater).

They’re incredibly physical performers, many of their movements planned out and orchestrated in a deliberate, stylized fashion. They walk dragging the opposite foot along the ground. They move in rhythmic drumroll steps, feet pitter-pattering rapidly up and down. And in one particularly dramatic scene, Newman steps off a barrel and falls to the ground, managing to perform some sneaky trickery that keeps him from breaking his face.

But physical movement isn’t merely the purview of the cast. The audience moves too, frequently getting ushered from one section of the theater to another, frontier-style. And even when you have a chance to sit in one place for a few moments, the set is in motion too, the cast manipulating red curtains to divide up the stage or block set changes.

Part of the magic of Manifest Destiny is you never know what’s going to happen next. The thread that ties the show together is its symbolic nature; the show attempts to encompass the West as it should have been, and the abstract concept of the “frontier” is front and center throughout the performance. Americans were born to break out into frontiers, the show suggests, and once you’re there anything goes.

Of course, you and I know the West didn’t stay frontier, and the cast knows it too … sort of. There’s a dark undertone that creeps into the show as it goes on, eventually culminating in a number of more serious vignettes that finally begin to address the notion that what they’re memorializing no longer exists, if it ever did.

It’s still funny in those moments. But the humor’s got a hint of rattlesnake venom in it, and it’s not a taste that’s easy to forget once you leave the West behind.

Manifest Destiny (there was blood on the saddle) will have two more performances tonight (Saturday) at Alverno’s Pitman Theatre at 7 and 10 p.m. Tickets are $15 each and can be purchased online or at Alverno Presents’ website.  

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