It rarely bodes well for a production when muffled titters greet the death of its protagonist, particularly when the play is, by any definition, a tragedy. Sadly, Diana Leblanc’s production of Farther West, left its audience neither entertained nor enthralled, as wooden, stereoyped performances turned John Murrell’s masterpiece into little more than a petticoat melodrama.
Farther Westis Murrell’s wild, gun-toting Western that traces the politics and poetics of gender emancipation in Canada’s goldrush. Following her father’s injunction that she move “farther west” like a stray dog, May Buchanan, a prostitute, blazes her trail ever westward, littering the as yet untamed Canadian settler towns with discarded lovers who simultaneously desire, hate, and fear her. May’s independence is feral and she proves, time and again, that she cares for nothing and no one, not even perhaps, herself.
Murrell is known for his hard-hitting, radically liminal female characters, and May Buchanan is, surely, the epitome of these tough chicks. For May, sexuality is little more than a means to an end; it is a way to negotiate power in a man’s world. But her complexity lies in the deep ambivalence that Murrell wrote into her character – her profound inability to know her own self, and her desperate search to find that very sense of self by moving ever farther west. While Tara Nicodemo tried to bring some of this complexity to the boards last night, her unvarying breathy drawl lacked the power to reveal the layers of this character.
Ms Nicodemo was supported by a cast who appeared at odds with their bodies, which in a production that contained nudity, left the audience feeling awkward on behalf of the actors. Remarkably hammy delivery created an effect of stereotype that left the audience cold. May’s lover, Thomas Shepherd, played by Matthew MacFadzean, came across as little more than a bleating school boy. Violet Decarmin, played by veteran actress Kyra Harper, seemed to throw her body around in an effort to look like a streetwalker. Awkward pacing and lapses in the logic of character building did not help the cause either. The “simple” Nettie seemed to forget, at times, that she was simple. Raglan, one of May’s many customers, looked and sounded like he had stepped off a subway rather than a buggy cart in 1870.
Notable performances this evening were Dan Lett as Seward, a policeman driven to biblical heights of madness by May’s wild beauty. Mr. Lett brought a fire to his performance that was sadly lacking among his fellow thespians.
If this evening’s performances didn’t quite deliver, Astrid Janson’s spare yet realist set (which brought a creek on stage), paired with Graeme Thomson’s haunting lighting design, brought a touch of brilliance to the night. The play ends as the mad Seward incants his broken dirge over May’s body. In the faint glimmer of dawn, he wades deep into the water, no longer a creek, but the Pacific ocean, thrusting the boat that carries her beautiful dead body on its final voyage to the west, to China, that place where the west becomes once more, the east.