The House Theatre Looks Back to History
Although much divisiveness has been noted surrounding the 2016 election, opposition and division are not new ideas. From dramas like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the annals of American history, there are many lessons to learn from the touchstones of feuds both historical and theatrical. Perhaps no such feud is as widely-known as that of the Hatfield and McCoy families, the inspiration for the current production running at the Chopin Theatre. Originally produced by The House Theatre of Chicago in 2006, Hatfield & McCoy, written by Shawn Pfautsch, is receiving an updated remount with all-new music written by Pfautsch and Matt Kahler.
Hatfield & McCoy Searches for Parallels
Two young lovers from different feuding houses are swept up in tragedy. If it sounds familiar, it’s by design. As far as adaptations go, Hatfield & McCoy resembles Romeo and Juliet more than a piece of historical fiction, with Rose Anna McCoy (Haley Bolithon) serving as the stand-in for Shakespeare’s Juliet and Johnse Hatfield (Kyle Whalen) as Romeo. Audiences follow Shakespeare’s story beat-for-beat in many scenes, with the pair meeting at a dance (the families actually compete against each other in a singing competition), marrying in secret, and vowing to let their marriage serve as a unifying and pacifying symbol for their bitter families.
Pfautsch also chooses to have Rose Anna and Johnse be well-versed in Shakespeare’s canon and the art of poetry. As a result, some scenes, such as their initial flirtations, shift from period-specific prose to Shakespearean verse to off-the-cuff, impassioned poetry. Whalen and Bolithon gamely handle these challenging textual changes while still acting the beats of young infatuation. Similarly heightened text comes forth from the parents, with Ol Ranl McCoy (Anish Jethmalani) quoting the Bible almost as much as speaking his own stern viewpoints.
Americana Music and Design On Stage
The world of Hatfield & McCoy is underscored by impressive design and music. Lee Keenan’s moody, haze-filled lighting design sets the scene ominously at the beginning of the play. His scenic design subtly suggests the interconnectedness of the families and their fates, too; woven wood thatching serves as a roof.
While Keenan’s scenic design is fixed in the worn woods of the era, the Americana music that buoys scenes is sprawling, spanning bluegrass, country, gospel, and even 2017 pop. As an actor and musician, Whalen stands out, performing his songs with passion and precision. And when Bolithon’s Rose Anna McCoy sings her competition piece--which borrows lyrically from Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene--it is a powerful and moving moment.
The House Theatre Goes For Epic
A company whose mission is to stage “original works of epic story and stagecraft” is sure to be ambitious, and this production is no exception. Featuring a cast of twenty actors and live musicians, Hatfield & McCoy is at times a dizzying experience. Hostages are taken (and re-taken), shootouts are plentiful, and blood is spilled by the end of the play’s three hours. This frenetic nature ups the ante in many scenes, particularly when the space is fraught with feuding family members, and director Matt Hawkin’s fight choreography is amply dangerous.
Just as intense are the layers of storytelling and style with which Pfautsch and Hawkins fill the play. Some moments of the production feature movement and dance choreography, while others are performed as overacted, farcical sketches written by Rose Anna and mocking the families’ differences. Still other moments veer from tragedy to melodrama to realism. While each element is stylistically consistent as performed by the cast (with Katherine Scott’s expressionistic choreography a stand-out in highlighting the inner passions of each character), this reviewer felt that this stylistic smorgasbord at times overwhelmed the clarity and focus of the play’s already full-t0-the-brim storytelling.
The House Theatre’s production of Hatfield & McCoy is overflowing with theatricality. Audiences will surely revel in its live music, stage combat, and eye-popping special effects, although some may appreciate a more focused narrative. There’s no denying the timeliness of this retelling, even if its tragic ending may ring more hopeless than hopeful.
Jan 19th, 2018 to March 11th, 2018
Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
1543 W Division St
Tickets range from $30 – $50. Same-day tickets for students and industry professionals are $20 and available for all dates, seats permitting.
With guns, righteousness and unneighborly conduct, this show is recommended for adults and teens. This reviewer would also like to note that for patrons who are uncomfortable around guns, the seating configuration of this production makes it so there may be times where a prop firearm is inadvertently aimed in your direction during larger shoot-outs.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago
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