Anyone heading into The Great American Desert at the 78th Street Theatre Lab expecting standard cowboy fare will be in for a pleasant (and sadly, quite short) surprise. Be forewarned: this is not your father's western. And yet it does have something for everybody: slapstick comedy, poetry, frontier life, even a touch of the avant-garde. Director Garrett Ayers has adapted the play from a little-known 1961 work by journalist and author Joel Oppenheimer, but it isn't his first attempt at bringing Oppenheimer's work to life. In fact, the production marks Ayers's third outing with Desert. This makes sense, given that his company is named the TryTryAgain Theater.
Oppenheimer's plot itself is fairly minimal, which is fine, as it makes itself quite adaptable to many different performance options. The gist is this: three cowboys, played by Brian Frank (Old Cowboy), Ben Rosenblatt (Gunny), and Erin Gorski (Young Cowboy), are on the run. From what, it isn't made exactly clear. Meanwhile, a Greek chorus of sorts, consisting of Wyatt Earp (Christopher T. VanDijk), Wild Bill Hickock (Maurice Doggan), Billy the Kid (Andrew McLeod), and Doc Holliday (Brian Sell), comments on the action from further upstage.
Ayers cleverly integrates some vaudevillian tricks into Desert. For sound effects, he has the actors mimic the action while a fellow cast member on the side of the stage provides the actual sound. For example, when a character is shaving, another actor can be seen rubbing sandpaper. When one character pantomimes slapping another, an actor (usually Joe Jung or Emily Moulton) creates the sound. Ayers's antics extend to the visual as well, including a pie in the face.
But Ayers doesn't strictly opt for the broad and bawdy. He also finds many grace notes in Oppenheimer's work; he even opens the play with an Oppenheimer poem. And he also peppers the performance with historical "commercials" that fit the context of the action, including a treatise on the many languages spoken by American Indians and the use of the horse as a domesticated animal.
If Desert sounds as if it is all over the place, that's because it is. It's Ayers's well-heeled ensemble cast that grounds the work, which runs a very taut 50 minutes. All of them demonstrate a remarkable amount of energy and focus necessary to keep the show running. Frank and Rosenblatt, in particular, stand out from the pack, though everyone involved seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself.
Ayers has turned the show into a labor of love, creatively fusing old genres and styles into something fresh. Unconventional as it is, Desert should not be viewed as off-putting. This would seem to be the case, given the small audience turnout on the night of this performance. And that's a shame, because everyone else is missing out.