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Where ‘Western’ is merely a state of mind: Recapping “Once Upon a Time 6x in the West”

Once Upon a Time 6x in the West

“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. (UW Daily–Photo by Andrew Tat)

What do a down-on-his-luck American Indian impersonator, beer pong, and “The Wizard of Oz” have in common?

They’re all a part of the theatrical menagerie that is the School of Drama’s “Once Upon a Time 6x in the West,” the latest entry in the Arts Dawg series. Though difficult to follow at times, “Once Upon a Time” provided a memorable experience for both myself and Tara, my date for the evening.

Tara and I met 45 minutes before the pre-show reception, getting to know each other over iced teas at Cafe Solstice. The conversation flowed freely as we discussed our respective careers and the uniqueness of this dating series before heading to the evening’s pre-show reception in Parrington Hall.

Settled in with wine, fruit, cheese and crackers, we listened as “Once Upon a Time” director Jeffrey Fracé explained the genesis of the production and decoded the wildly disparate styles we would encounter. Tara would later say that this discussion helped her understand what to expect and prepared her for the variety of styles throughout the two-and-a-half-hour play.

Fracé and crew adapted an original script, “The Story of Little Horse,” for the production. The resulting story follows Lil, an orphan who’s kidnapped and eventually raised in an Old West brothel; the story culminates on Lil’s 13th birthday, when she’s faced with the choice of embracing the bordello life or escaping for something better.

Then again, that’s like saying “Pulp Fiction” is about a boxer or “The Dark Knight” is about a guy in a bat costume. Throughout the production, “Once Upon a Time” reflected its story through the styles of six iconic stage directors, with each act adopting a look and feel unlike any of the others. The first act, for instance, started with a minimalist stage design inspired by English director Peter Brook, who strove to emphasize the actor’s performance over design elements surrounding the action; the set consisted of roughly a dozen bamboo sticks and little else. The fifth act, meanwhile, paid homage to The Wooster Group, a New York City-based experimental theater company, with video projections, disaffected speech, bright lights, and frenetic choreography.

I had little time to make sense of the action as “Once Upon a Time” hopscotched from one style to the next. The sheer spectacle, extreme variation, and occasional musical numbers sometimes distracted from the story; in fact, the actress portraying Lil (Sylvia Kowalski) broke the fourth wall completely at one point, inviting audience members to play the roles of crucial characters — including herself — before talking about a bike ride she had taken earlier that day.

No matter. The unpredictability made for a memorable performance.

That said, I don’t know that it was an ideal first date; an early rape scene, in particular, would have been cringe-worthy even if I wasn’t inches away from someone I’d met only two hours earlier. To her credit, Tara was a good sport, laughing along with the absurdity of the production and making an excellent point after the cast took its final bow: “Once Upon a Time” gave us plenty to talk about afterward.

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