With Network and To Kill a Mockingbird just around the corner, it seems like a good time to question the practice of putting classic movies onstage. Can the theater bring any added value to such highly regarded works? Certainly it can reshape them: Network, it seems, will come with a lot of multimedia doodads and whatever else director Ivo van Hove drags into it, and Mockingbird will feature adults in the kids’ roles. Whether those shows will equal the impact they had on the big screen remains to be seen. Meantime, downtown, Axis Company is also having a go at screen-to-stage, with its adaptation of High Noon.
Fred Zinnemann’s spare little 1952 Western, most film buffs will tell you, probably should have beaten out The Greatest Show on Earth for Best Picture that year, and it did garner Oscars for actor (Gary Cooper), film editing, scoring, and song. It’s the tense story of a small-town marshal about to be visited by the killer he sent up the river years ago, who’s heading back for revenge and almost sure to succeed. The marshal, having married a sweet Quaker lady that very day, first leaves town, then reconsiders, tries to assemble a bunch of deputies, fails, and is left to face the killer and his cohorts alone. It’s about bravery and resoluteness vs. small-town hypocrisy and avoidance of responsibility, or, as Pauline Kael put it, “The Western form is used for a sneak civics lesson.”
At Axis, it also has other things on its mind. The stage, gray and empty and Cinerama-wide, represents the whole town, and in an attention-getting opening, there’s darkness and movie-ish music (Paul Carbonara’s), thundering sound effects (also Carbonara’s) and then, lights up, the entire cast. They’re celebrating the wedding of retiring marshal Will Barnon (Brian Barnhart) and Alice (Katie Rose Summerfield). And from there the script, presumably cobbled together by the whole company (there’s no writer credit), sticks fairly close to Carl Foreman’s original, but with some odd digressions and odder directorial touches.
For some reason, most of the characters’ names, and some of their personalities, have been changed. Harvey, Will’s ornery second-in-command, handsomely played by Lloyd Bridges in the film, is now Senator (Jon McCormick), although not really; this isn’t even a state, but his mother gave him an ambitious name. The hateful hotel clerk is now a hateful bartender (Phil Gillen). The killer’s menacing brother has become a giggly half-wit (Nicholas McGovern). And Alice, in conversation with Helen Ramirez (Britt Genelin), Will’s former mistress and now Harvey/Senator’s squeeze, confides in her, “I’m a feminist,” surely not a term heard much in the Old West.
Beyond the adjustments in plot and characterization, and there are several, director Randy Sharp has reconceived the material as something of an existentialist nightmare. The townspeople often fade, dreamlike, into the background, but act as one; when Alice declares, “I don’t care who’s right or wrong,” they all suddenly look at her, as if to emphasize the town’s collective guilt. When Helen offers a speech, not in the movie, about her awful marriage, Alice inexplicably waltzes around. And while the town debates the value of fighting or not fighting, what’s Helen doing lying on the floor, waving her arms?
Anyway, some of the staging’s effective, especially in its isolation of Will from everyone else. Barnhart, while not very Gary Cooper–like, cuts a striking figure. He seldom looks at anyone even while talking to them; he’s a loner, a sole force of heroism among cowards, and he suffers for it. As potential deputies fade away one by one, he agonizes, and we feel his helplessness and fear the showdown.
Only there ain’t no showdown. Spoiler, but it’s unavoidable: The narrative ends before that dreaded train pulls in, and we’re denied not only the film’s taut editing and crisp cinematography as the shooting starts, but any denouement at all. The 85-minute film was praised for taking place in real time; this is over in an hour. Sharp and company do zero in on moral conflict—is Will really heroic for reviving old trouble? Is the town really wrong to want to push it away? Interesting questions, though they go unanswered. Some good acting happens, notably by Summerfield and Genelin, and there’s also expressive lighting (David Zeffren) and eye-filling costumes (Karl Ruckdeschel). In short, this High Noon makes a reasonable case for reinvestigating and reinterpreting beloved old movies. But be advised, it’s missing a couple of reels.
High Noon plays through Oct. 27 at Axis Company (1 Sheridan Square). Performances are at 8 p.m. Oct. 3–6, 8–13, 18–20, and 24–27. For tickets, call Theatermania (212-352-3101) or visit axiscompany.org.