By Donna Clayton Lawder
It's a bright Sunday afternoon in Pinos Altos and the Melodrama Theater troupe is having a "semi-dress rehearsal" of its current production, "The Legend of Billy the Kid or It's Just a Little Gun Play," which opened a new season in mid-February. The stage is set simply with one small table, two chairs and a painted plywood bar. Swinging doors at the back of the stage show that the setting is a saloon. The comically worded signs on the establishment's wall about treatment of certain (ahem!) "Ladies" indicate that this is the Old Wild West in all its colorful glory.
This being only a rehearsal, no booing or hissing will be heard and no popcorn will be thrown at the stage. In the Melodrama's Friday and Saturday night performances, such audience participation is not only allowed but encouraged.
The Melodrama troupe, a small group of paid actors chosen by audition from local talent, performs in the Pinos Altos Opera House, an Old West Victorian frontier theater built in 1969 out of salvaged buildings that were much older. Inside the rustic theater are displays of Old West photos and artifacts, adding a sense of charm and history to the place.
Voices carry easily from the traditional opera house stage to the back of the house. Opera houses were built so as to not require vocal amplification. An old upright piano, a standard fixture in melodrama theater, sits at the corner of the stage.
Now in its 13th season, the company was founded by director and playwright Sean O'Hare, who runs it with his wife-partner Jillian Graves, the company's business manager. Graves also teaches drama at a local high school. The Melodrama Theater is O'Hare's "main job." Before moving to Pinos Altos just over 13 years ago, the pair had created and performed two-person shows.
O'Hare and a couple of the members of this production's troupe are picking through costumes, piled on a table offstage. Doug Abbott, a barrel-chested man with a loud, clear voice, will act the part of narrator, barkeep and "Billy Barlow." Director O'Hare himself has a couple of parts. In "Billy the Kid," nine different parts will be played by just four actors.
"It's hard to find that many actors," O'Hare says. Two of the five in this show are new to the troupe. The commitment on the part of the actors is substantial—numerous rehearsals plus performances every Friday and Saturday night for months on end, the length of each show's run.
So, to fill the gap, a top hat and duster will transform Abbott into "Barlow." With the switch to an apron and a little imagination on the part of the audience, he becomes a bartender. Sometimes the switching adds to the humor, as the audience suspends disbelief and rolls with the fantasy.
"How does this mustache work?" Abbott, the bartender-cum-bad-guy asks. O'Hare clips it on himself. "Oh!" Abbott exclaims.
"Yeah, you don't want to put it on that way," O'Hare says, laughing in response to Abbott's fumbling first attempts. With a humorous mumbled reference to "snot," the two men chuckle and move on to bow ties. "Maybe this red one for the other bartender part?" Abbott suggests. O'Hare concurs.
While Abbott and O'Hare paw through mourning coats and dusters, top hats and aprons, two other players rehearse lines and practice their entrances. The piano player, evidently, is off today.
Sean O'Hare has written or co-authored most of the plays his troupe performs. The titles, true to the melodrama tradition, are subtitled to elicit good-natured groans. Other staples in the repertoire include "Evil's Reward or The Taming of McGrew" and "Take Us To Your Leaderhosen" [sic], delightfully awfully subtitled, "One World Order To Go, Hold the Mao."
Every performance opens with an old-fashioned sing-along, the audience calling out the titles of their favorite songs. Originally a term for musical theater, by the 19th century, "melodrama" became the designation of a suspenseful, plot-oriented drama featuring all-good heroes, all-bad villains, simplistic dialogue, soaring moral conclusions and over-the-top bravura acting.
To start today's rehearsal, O'Hare leads the cast in the introductory song, a humorous tune that fills the audience in on the plot and sets the tone for the performance.
The narrator then strides to the footlights and, with loud and colorful delivery, instructs the audience in "Proper Melodrama Behavior," which includes cheering for the good guys, hissing and booing the villains, and even throwing a little popcorn when called for. Though the characters change costumes several times, it is always easy to tell the good guys from the bad. Melodrama theater leaves no doubt—Good always wins out over Evil—with groans and belly laughs along the way.
The old upright piano at the corner of the stage bears a sign, warning the audience against shooting the piano player.
Albert Placencio, a vibrant and energetic young man with straight black hair, has been cast as "Billy the Kid." He struts the stage and delivers his lines with earnest intensity, refining delivery and emphasis with suggestions from another actor, Claire McDaniels.
McDaniels will play Jenny, Billy's femme fatale and love-at-first-sight interest. Clad in navy pants and an oversized college sweatshirt, she buckles on a pair of white high heels. A frightfully obvious wig completes the look, and at first cracks Placencio up so that he cannot deliver a line.
Cast as a sophisticated lady destined to dazzle the Kid and win his heart, McDaniels' Jenny is hyper-refined, her voice trilling and fluttering. Her Proper Lady from the Big City accent comes off as almost English, sort of like a Katherine Hepburn on steroids.
The rehearsal begins in earnest now, with Billy the Kid, sweet Jenny and the barkeep in their places on stage. Director O'Hare stands in the nearly empty audience space, offering the occasional prompt of a forgotten line, calling out his own lines as a villainous character, coaching an actor on his evil laugh, asking a player to speak up.
Barkeep Abbott asks for a prompt on how the gunfight progresses. O'Hare, feeding lines to all three characters onstage, has lost his place and fumbles through the script, a well-worn mass of simple typed pages.
He backs up to McDaniels' last line, then rapid-fire brings the others up to the point of the action in question. "Okay, then Billy, blah blah, blah. Get the gun. Bang." The actors go through the action in fast motion. Placencio, playing Billy, stops cold and says to McDaniels, "You're supposed to have the gun."
"Oh, I'd set it down," McDaniels says. She walks across the stage to the table, picks up an imaginary gun, walks back to Placencio and "hands" it to him.
"I can't believe you went over there to pick up an imaginary gun," Placencio says. McDaniels realizes the inanity of her actions, replies with a simple, "Oh," and all four players erupt in laughter.
O'Hare explains, "Sometimes something they do or say is even funnier than what was written," and so a mistake can make its way into the script.
The rehearsal roars on, replete with bad jokes, sight gags and double entendres. There is a Shakespearean reference and a nod to Groucho Marx, and one character mockingly asks game show announcer "Don Pardo" to "PLEASE tell him what he has WON!"
As Act Two begins, the actors quickly move the simple furnishings around the stage, giving the audience the idea that the setting is now a different saloon. In real production, this action would be concealed behind the curtains, raised and lowered by McDaniels. In the interest of a speedy rehearsal, the curtain motions are abbreviated or only referenced.
Abbott grabs new costuming to become yet another character. The troupe sings a little introductory song, highlighting the action for the audience's benefit and foreshadowing what is to come. McDaniels, in her Katherine Hepburnesque voice, chirps out only the last word of each line, cracking up Placencio-Billy.
Through the course of the play, the Kid's troubles redouble and the scene switches to a courtroom, Billy pleading for a fair trial. One character accuses another of badgering the witness, of course beating him with a stuffed-animal badger. At one point, the Kid breaks into Sinatra, belting out a line from "My Way," then, without missing a beat morphs into Elvis Presley with the standard, "Thank you, thank you very much."
The melodrama only gets funnier with repetition, but most in the audience are only passing through Pinos Altos and won't get the chance. Visitors are the mainstay of the Pinos Altos Melodrama Theater, O'Hare says: "We get locals but we depend on the tourists." Many customers find it pleasant to have dinner before the show at the Buckhorn Saloon next door, he adds.
And if you haven't yet seen "The Legend of Billy the Kid," don't assume you already know the way this story ends. But fear not, gentle audiencepersons—good always prevails in melodrama. Even Billy the Kid will be shown in sympathetic—or at least humorous—light. After all, "It's Just a Little Gun Play."