Fringe theatremaker visits the old west with 'Blood Red Moon', 'The Clock Strikes Noon' and 'The Rattlesnake's Kiss'
The western genre, with its monument valleys and widescreen vistas, doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the traditionally small scale of Fringe theatre. Nevertheless, it’s the western to which Jethro Compton has turned for his latest trilogy of genre pieces at the Fringe, following recent explorations of WWI (the Bunker trilogy) and film noir (the Capone trilogy). And consarn it if the old feller ain’t just went and shot the doggone moon.
Each chapter of the Frontier Trilogy takes place inside the Chapel of Emmanuel, a rough pine and sack-cloth structure that’s somehow found its way inside Victoria Street’s baronial 19th century India Buildings. The chapel – a long, wooden room with benches on either side and an illuminated crucifix cut into the rear wall – is a major factor in the trilogy’s success, placing the audience in the same claustrophobic rooms as the bloody and backstabbing protagonists.
There’s Enoch and Levi Hill, the brothers at the heart of ‘Blood Red Moon’, whose initial success on a gold claim soon gives way to bitterness and rancour. There’s Ben Walker and Felix Jackson in ‘The Clock Strikes Noon’, two landowners making a last stand against the all-devouring American Pacific Railroad company. And there’s Father Manoah, the blind preacher who features in all three tales but takes centre stage in ‘The Rattlesnake’s Kiss’, in which he’s asked to betray one of his flock while battling his own demons.
The same four cast members appear in each production, rendering doubly impressive their exemplary portrayal of the several roles they inhabit every night. In addition to solid performances throughout, each gets their chance to shine: the otherwise gruff Sam Donnelly has immense fun as a pair of theatrical villains in ‘Rattlesnake’; Jonathan Mathews and Bebe Sanders make for a chaste and sympathetic doomed couple in ‘Blood Red Moon’. Admittedly, Chris Huntly-Turner’s preacher is on the sidelines for the first two chapters, but his impressive physicality in ‘Rattlesnake’ is very much a release worth waiting for.
A great deal of credit also goes to auteur Compton who, in addition to direction and set and lighting design, is responsible for each chapter’s terse, tense script. He’s rarely showy – aside from a bravura pitch-black sequence that mimics Father Manoah’s handicap in ‘Rattlesnake’ – instead allowing the desperate characters and atmospheric setting speak for themselves. Despite the strong links between all three chapters (though, narratively, they function as standalone stories), he’s also succeeded in ensuring each has its own flavor: ‘Blood Red Moon’s prolonged, tragic romance stands distinct from ‘The Clock Strikes Noon’s wicked streak of gallows humour and ‘Rattlesnake’s creeping dread.
So why four stars and not five? Well, in his faithfulness to genre conventions, Compton has (most likely intentionally) made some plot points easy to anticipate – for certain stretches of script, the audience knows where the story’s going long before the characters. It’s only a minor frustration, mind you – for the most part, it’s satisfying to drink in the whisky-soaked ambience and watch the chips fall where they may.