The Golden Spike – A Western Fried
[Before I start the review proper, an announcement: Baltimore Annex Theater members recently had the fun experience of getting to their space and noticing that there was an obscene amount of water pouring into their basement courtesy of the empty rat hole next door bursting a pipe. I had a chat with Managing Director Rick Gerriets before the show and he said that a lot of their curtains, costumes and props were damaged beyond repair (he likened the waterlogged soft goods smell to “cat piss” which I think is fabulously descriptive). If you can spare something, show a little love and donate to the cause. Go here for more information on The Great Flood of 2014 and be a good friend, hear?]
Alright, folks, sit back, because imma ’bout to lay some vocabulary on you now: the word of the day is palimpsest. A palimpsest refers to “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.” It’s like when you write down your flight number on a pad of paper and you tear it off but there’s still an indentation from the pen on the page underneath (fun fact: this is how the Law and Order detectives will catch your ass trying to leave town right after your cousin’s mistress disappears under suspicious circumstances). Baltimore Annex Theater is a palimpsest. It’s located in a space that used to be a chicken box carry out and, rather than obliterate all traces of the former, the theater decided to work with it, leaving bits of the old behind. There’s even a menu board tacked up on the wall. I liked it – I felt like the ghosts of people waiting for their 2 pieces were there with me watching the show. Even the actors are a bit of a palimpsest: in a play set in the Old West and full of fabulous bustles and three piece white suits (costumes by Susan MacCorkle), no one bothered to remove their nose rings or tone down their bright pink hair. This vibe, I dig. It’s cool and it’s fun. Now, purists will get sniffy about the fact that you can clearly hear (and occasionally see) actors before the show and a few members of the audience appeared to pay in cans of Natty Bo. Admittedly, it’s not very “professional” and if you’re looking for that atmosphere you will be disappointed. It reminded me of the play your parents see on the last day of summer camp. But it’s all pretty laid back and genuine and honestly, I appreciated that. Forward march. R.M. O’Brien’s The Golden Spike is kind of like a fever dream you have after falling asleep cramming for your American History AP final where all your friends are on the Oregon Trail and there is also a giant man-eating bird. Gil Robinson (Doug Johnson) is a railroad tycoon about to realize his dream of completing America’s First Transcontinental. The “golden spike” is the one he will drive into the ground to ceremoniously mark the end of the line. At the beginning of the play, he is being interviewed about his accomplishments by intrepid reporter Cora “C.T.” Allen (Emily Hall) who we know immediately doesn’t like Gil or his ilk one bit. In the grand tradition of lady reporters, she’s kind of a prude. Gil’s frontier town is populated by saloon girls, mayors with gigantic top hats and rigged card games. A drifting trapper named Jacob Miller wanders in (Rjyan Kidwell wearing the fakest fake beard I’ve ever seen). Jacob and Gil strike up a friendship and, after Cora double crosses Gil with a double crossin’ varmint of a shitty-but-true article (goddamned women reviewers!), the duo set out into the desert to kill the Thunderbird, a mythical creature that is scaring Gil’s railroad workers to death. There are elements of the Epic of Gilgamesh mixed in as the play descends into a quasi-spiritual ending that reminded me of that Simpsons episode where Homer has a drug-induced catharsis while talking to a fox voiced by Johnny Cash. Director Mason Ross takes pleasure in being a bit mixed media (he’s also the lighting, sound, set and projection designer) which he pulls off with varying success: projected black and white videos of lonely train tracks and rattlesnakes set to yodeling music go on FOREVER and had me checking my watch. Silent movie style title cards flash up above the actors heads to announce the scene changes which is cutesy in a broken nickelodeon way that strays into the twee category at times. At best, Golden Spike is a lesser Cohen brothers movie, at worst it’s the sort of ironic that people have to convince themselves they’re being directly before they have a mustache tattooed on their bodies. The cast is uniformly fine. Their characters are cartoons and, as such, are not required to have souls or even personalities as long as they can say words like “cotton pickin'” good and loud. Johnson is a little stiff at first but warms up eventually. I gave him a break considering, as is too common with newish playwrights, he is saddled with what feels like one thousand monologues. Allen’s Cora is hella cute if a little bland. Kidwell’s wild man Jacob Miller is wild-eyed enough and he had the most fun with the over-the-top accent. The rest of the actors play a dozen different town characters, several a piece, none of which really stay onstage long enough to make much of an impact. I was, however, quite drawn to Madison Coan (her barmaid has a particularly gross way of serving whiskey to strangers)- I think she’s got something, there, myself.
BOTTOM LINE: The Golden Spike is the kind of play that is much more about the idea of doing it than about actually doing it. Does this Bonanza in a blender make a goddamned lick of sense? Well, no. Was it fun to look at? Definitely. Was it fun to watch? Sometimes. And that’s about it.
Running at Baltimore Annex Theater until March 2nd
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