Autry’s “Off the Rails” Shakes Up the Old West

Theatre can play with history.  It can show us  what wasn’t, what might have been, and throw the light of insight onto mere facts.

Shakespeare knew this as well as anyone.  So it’s fitting that Native Voices at the Autry — a troupe marking its 20th year (already?) — is using his Measure for Measure to twist American history’s nose and come up with a playful tale of an Old West that never was.

(photo: Craig Schwartz)

(photo: Craig Schwartz)

Off the Rails is an exuberant mix — its text half Shakespeare and half Randy Reinholz (the artistic director), its style half summer stock and half dance-hall revue.  But, like the Bard’s dark comedy, it has some serious work to do.

Shakespeare slashed his quill at 17th-century Puritans and their hypocrisy. Reinholz stabs at 19th-century Americans’ puritanical notions, including their passion to cleanse the continent of its Natives.  Or, failing that, to bleach the survivors of their cultures.

Fantasy sweetens the satire.  The Bard swept his London audiences to an imaginary Vienna; Reinholz wafts us to a fantasy frontier town.
It boasts a bordello and a federal “Indian School,” and it’s angling for a railroad depot. But Native Americans are comfortably integrated into local life. (As are women, blacks, gays and everyone else who’s marginalized in real America.)

Our story thus subtly shifts from the conflict between a noble duke and his ignoble deputy to one between a sane community and the insanities of power and prejudice.  A fit image of the ongoing struggle between America’s peaceful democratic dream and its violent, plutocratic realities.

Off the Rails delivers all this lightly and rapidly, with combustible humor.  Led by veteran Ted Barton as the town’s absent eminence, and Shyla Martin as the bordello keeper, the cast carves out clear characters and delivers the lines — old and new — with unfailing energy and clarity.

Christopher Salazar is especially strong as a wise aide, Román Zaraoza and Robert Vestal create a charming pair of scapegraces, and LeVance Tarver holds stage winningly as a chorus cowboy. Brian Joseph provides beautifully apt music.  And of course Native Voices has Grandfather (Duane Minard) lending his dignity and blessing.

At times, the exuberance runs a bit off the rails, with almost constant movement (note to director Chris Anthony: Still moments run deep) and some odd, unmotivated blocking.  But that’s a small matter.

Off the Rails gets the big things right. It’s colorful, lively and inventive theatre, and a bold satire our culture needs for healing. Grandfather Willie would be proud.
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Off the Rails, by Randy Reinholz (and William Shakespeare), directed by Chris Anthony.
Presented by Native Voices at the Autry, at the Welss Fargo Theatre, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 pm, through March 15.

Tickets: <www.TheAutry.org/Native Voices>
(Tickets include admission to the Autry Museum.)