Saloonatics

Posted on 18 Aug 2011 at 5:00pm

‘Wild Oats’ is over the top — in all the wrong ways

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YEE HUH? | The Old West formula goes awry when a Reformation comedy gets a badly written update to the American frontier, though Andy Baldwin and Lee Jamison, center, make the most of it.

STEVEN LINDSEY   | Contributing Writer
stevencraiglindsey@me.com

The audience reaction throughout Wild Oats says it all. Half the theater-in-the-round patrons sit with stoic looks of boredom, arms crossed in defiance to the attempts onstage to garner laughs. The other half cackles uproariously at the Old West shenanigans in this pseudo-vaudevillian melodrama from playwright James McLure.

I sided more with the arm-crossers than the cacklers, though a laugh occasionally escaped me during this production. Wild Oats is one of those unfortunate theater experiences where I found myself focused on the Playbill, counting the number of scene until intermission like an inmate anxiously ticking away the days to parole. Perhaps the fact the theater was stiflingly hot and everyone around me was sweating and fanning themselves with their programs contributed to the prison feel; maybe it was the goofy over-acting by most of the actors. Or quite possibly, it is simply source material that’s gone stale.

McLure adapted the play from an 18th century comedy by John O’Keeffe, transporting the action to 19th century Muleshoe, Texas. All the elements for a classic Old West comedy are present and accounted for: A Native American with an Irish accent. A devilish pastor. A handsome, Shakespeare-loving cowboy. A flamboyant West Point drop-out. A wealthy, unrefined heiress. So why does it go so horribly awry?

For every moment of inspired lunacy, a joke is killed by being explained. Nothing kills a punch line more than a dissertation on its funniness. And while some clever gimmicks are funny the first time, they are only mildly amusing the third and fourth and completely worn out by the 16th rehashing. There’s a lot to absorb in the frenetic action unfolding all around you, one of the pure pleasures of theater-in-the-round, and this A.D.D. approach can often translate into grand comedy. Instead, it comes across as desperation.

There are some solid performances from actors who know how to tread the treacherous line between over-acting and willful exaggeration. Watching Andy Baldwin and Lee Jamison is sublimely enjoyable regardless of what they’re doing. They’re captivating, and each knows how to make the most of what they have been given. (A same-sex near-kiss between Baldwin and James Chandler is one of the play’s greatest bits of physical comedy.)

This production is the first show of Theatre 3’s landmark 50th anniversary season, so here’s hoping like the true sowing of wild oats that this is something they just had to get out of their systems. For a company deft at switching from comedy to Broadway musicals to intense drama with such finesse, this miss is easily forgiven.

But a miss it is. Maybe you’ll end up on Team Loves It and can joyfully explain what the rest of us missed. We can tell you what was interesting in the Playbill.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 19, 2011.

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