Every Day Above Ground
nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
February 8, 2007
Every Day Above Ground, by the Brooklyn- and Montreal-based company SaBooge, is inspired by Michael Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I walked into the production knowing little about Billy the Kid and nothing about Ondaatje's novella, and walked out knowing not much more. But just a little time with Wikipedia and Amazon.com gave me a context for what the production was trying to achieve.
Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty in 1859 and lived under a variety of aliases. His posthumous fame is largely the result of a romantic biography written by Pat Garrett, the New Mexico sheriff who ultimately killed him. In order to make himself a hero, Garrett had to create a villain. Though history has only been able to document nine men who died at the hands of Billy the Kid, Garrett jumped the number to twenty-one, one for each year The Kid was alive.
In contrast, Ondaatje's novella is spare and active, with simple but elegant descriptions of events. The juxtaposition of Ondaatje's pared-down prose with Garrett's biography is compelling fodder for a stage piece, and SaBooge's Billy the Kid is more victim than villain. The opening image is The Kid dead in Pat Garrett's hands, stiff and helpless as Garrett shakes and croons to him. The Kid breaks away and comes to life, but even then he is mostly ghost, periodically lifting up his shirt to check his bullet wound. Billy wanders helplessly through the tan and gray landscape, and everything from the harsh desert sun to a man-eating prostitute to an abrasive team of photographers seems determined to suck him dry. Everyone wants something from Billy, who, disoriented and ill, is stumbling through the arid melancholy landscape of—the afterlife? his imagination? the story that history wrote for him?
Jodi Essery's script is a meditation on a man trapped inside his own legend, endlessly looking for some kind of peace. Director Adrienne Kapstein creates a vague mood of minor-key nostalgia spiced with some interesting bits of stagecraft—for example, in order to get the harsh burnt-out feeling of desert sun she raises the lights bright in the audience's eyes. The design team of Simon Harding on sets and lights, Jeff Lorenz on music, and Jennifer Par elegantly articulate her sepia-toned vision. Every member of the cast holds their own, but it is impossible to ignore Magin Schantz as Miss Angela D. Her edgy, voracious prostitute is by turns frightening and sexy, and she stands out in the articulate ensemble of Trent Pardy, Attila Clemann, Patrick Costello, Graham Cuthbertson, Kayla Fell, and Andrew Shaver.
But despite its haunting beauty, the piece never quite comes together. The soft mood, beautiful language, and charismatic performances don't stimulate the intellect or the emotions strongly enough to really be satisfying. Still, it's a lovely and theatrical meditation on the nature of legend. And since this elegant little piece clocks in at not much more than an hour, it's possible to forgive a certain lack of cohesive punch and just enjoy the beauty of the elements.