Play review: 'Once Upon a Time 6X In The West"


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“Indian” (Ben Phillips) offers Lil (Sylvia Kowalski) medicine in the first act of UW Drama’s production of “Once Upon A Time 6X In The West” at the Jones Playhouse Theatre.

Photo by Andrew Tat



Once upon a time, a massacre occurred within the deep desert of the Wild West and a young girl became orphaned. As audience members witness the girl develop into adolescence, they learn that it takes a brothel to raise a child.

“Once Upon A Time 6X In The West” tackles more than just the growing pains of an adolescent. Influenced by a plethora of writers and directors, UW drama’s latest production attempts to embrace contributors’ individual styles and apply them to director Jeffrey Fracé’s script, “The Story Of Little Horse.”

Set in 1886 in the great Wild West, the story follows the path of a young girl, Lil (Sylvia Kowalski). After the untimely death of her mother, she is adopted by a criminal named El Gaucho (Patrick Baxter).

Their relationship, though built on the lie that El Gaucho is her biological father, is perfectly exemplified through Lil’s enthusiastic love for her father. As El Gaucho tells Lil stories every night, Kowalski’s eyes become childish-wide with genuine excitement. And as bounty hunters rip her from her home with El Gaucho, her cry of anguish is as though she is truly a terrified child. Kowalski captures the essence of a daughter that adores her father, and Baxter’s distraught mannerisms reveal a soft heart within the wanted criminal.

Now on her own, newly literate, and bearing witness to prostitution in The Black Opal Saloon, Lil is thrown into a rough world that forces her to fend for herself and discover who she is. A question lingers in the air: Will she keep her innocence or embrace the saloon lifestyle?

The scenery, built out of patched together wood, exemplifies the poverty in Lil’s newfound life. Most of the props and furniture are also wooden and support the central theme of a Wild West where things are built from scratch.

In accompaniment with the Wild West backdrops, the show includes music and sound effects to further a deep, desert feel. A lone guitarist strums cowboy chords while the other actors create snake rattles, hoot like train horns, and whistle the morning songs of birds. The music’s intensity is used as an indicator of danger throughout the play.

The second act brings a noticeably different style to “Once Upon a Time.” The act incorporates digital movies playing on the backdrop; performers dressed in gothic, black costumes with brightly colored hair, and somewhat robotic movements as lines are read.

Deeper into the show, surreal yet entertaining bits of modernity are thrown in. They include dance music, rainbow lights and costumes, and some erotic language. These snippets are entangled throughout each scene and bring quick bouts of humor that balance out the play’s serious motifs.

These random, short dance parties, a digital background, and some aspects of the other styles feel disconnected from the Wild West theme. They appear strongly rooted in the present, making them seem out of place and putting the plot in a different time period.

To counteract this bit of confusion, the show throws in stereotypical images of the Wild West. At one point, giant tumbleweed rolls on stage, reminding the audience that they are still in the old desert, despite strobe lights and punk rock music.

In moments throughout the show, the rush from childish innocence to harsh saloon life feels like a large jump. But with Lil’s genuine inquisitiveness and desire to feel part of something, the situation becomes more believable. Kowalski plays the role of this child with earnest curiosity; she seems to understand the character as she evolves, furthering the believability of Lil’s rapid development into adulthood.

Although actors play multiple parts throughout the play, each demonstrates an excellent capability of portraying their various roles with accurate and unique personalities.

The show creates a community that Lil is searching for, which reaches beyond the plot. Everyone, even the stage crew moving with the music during set changes, works together to make the audience feel like a part of their newly formed community.

The verdict: Although the show takes on a difficult task by including unique stylistic elements, the dedication to the Wild West ambiance secures its success.

Reach reporter Olivia Sullivan at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @oliviarrose

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