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The Petrified Forest at Strawdog Theatre Company | Theater review

Shade Murray’s production of Robert E. Sherwood’s 1935 Western rests uneasily between straight shooting and overblown.

 (Photograph: Leigh Loftus)
1/3
Photograph: Leigh Loftus

The Petrified Forest at Strawdog Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Leigh Loftus)
2/3
Photograph: Leigh Loftus

The Petrified Forest at Strawdog Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Leigh Loftus)
3/3
Photograph: Leigh Loftus

The Petrified Forest at Strawdog Theatre Company

For Petrified Forest, scenic designer Nic Dimond has painted the walls of Strawdog’s space with rolling, cartoon-like evocations of Monument Valley, a gesture that signals a friendly world with a camp touch—a Western with a black-and-white, fit-for-kids morality. But the lights rise and we get a production that plays this tale—about denizens held hostage by robbers at an Arizona roadhouse—for tears and heartfelt laughter. Playing it straight works to some extent. In particular, it makes room for a thrilling performance from Caroline Neff, who transforms wanderlustful bar gal Gabby into a full-blooded character yearning for stimulation, sophistication and escape.

But Sherwood’s script—made, perhaps indicatively, into a 1936 Humphrey Bogart flick—is brash and outdated; it lives in a world where valor really matters, where the lady you meet in the morning can be worth dying for by sunset. The pull of the filmic and overblown is felt throughout the production—in certain of director Shade Murray’s casting choices (fidgety, nearly alienoid Adam Shalzi as hit man Ruby, in particular) and in Mikhail Fiksel’s homage-y soundtrack to the play’s final shoot-outs.

These choices all intrigue, but they rest uneasily together. We want to devour the play as a wildly theatrical experiment in mounting a Western on a storefront stage. We also want to experience it emotionally. But the production vacillates between style and seriousness, never quite settling anywhere. It compels, but it doesn’t stick.

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