A stage adaptation of a classic Western film might sound kind of retro. But that’s not at all what playwright Karen Zacarías brought to the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in June 2023, when producing artistic director Blake Robison staged the world premiere of her adaptation of Shane. Next he’s taking the production for a four-week run (July 21-Aug. 27) at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which co-commissioned the piece.
Zacarías collaborated with Robison to develop her take on the tale about a war between ranchers and homesteaders in 1889 Wyoming. One departure from typical Westerns, including the classic 1953 movie Shane with Alan Ladd: In such films almost all of the characters were white, and Native Americans and Mexicans, if present at all, were cast as villains.
Not so in Zacarías’s Shane, which is based on her own memory of Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel, which she read when she was 11, not long after her family moved from Mexico to Boston. She identified with the novel’s fictional family, as they too had moved to a new place in search of a safer, more prosperous future, and pictured the characters accordingly. “The mother was called Marian, a common Latin American name, and I imagined her as such,” Zacarías wrote in a program note. “And the sensitive and mysterious Shane, described as a lean, dark figure…lived in my imagination as my hero Roberto Clemente, the Afro-Latino baseball legend who had died [in 1972] trying to fly supplies to Nicaragua earthquake survivors.”
For years, Zacarías’s memory of Schaefer’s novel remained vivid, and in fact she didn’t see George Stevens’s classic film before writing her adaptation. Instead, working closely with Robison—a partner in developing and staging several of her plays, including the much-produced Native Gardens (2016), commissioned by Cincinnati Playhouse—she crafted an adaptation of Shane that she feels faithfully reflects the actual American West, which is “very different than what was always depicted in films. One fourth of the cowboys were Black; Mexicans made up another fourth. And most films and books completely erased the tragic impact the Homestead Act had on the Native American community.”
In Zacarías’s version, the tale is narrated by a grown-up version of young Bobby (actor Juan Arturo plays both roles), and depicts Shane as a Black man, a loner with a troubled past who shows up in Wyoming cattle country, and is as quickly idolized by young Bobby Starrett, the child of local settlers, as he is hated by a ruthless rancher and other settlers. Several characters are portrayed as mixed-race, and Shayna Jackson, an actor of Native American descent, plays Winona, a new character Zacarías invented to represent an Indigenous perspective absent from the prior tales.
In 2020 Robison produced Zacarías’s Destiny of Desire, an extravagant takeoff on Latin American telenovelas. An aficionado of Westerns, he invited her to consider dramatizing Shane, envisioning something similar to her take on telenovelas. She had other ideas. “I was interested in a more serious kind of Western,” Zacarías said, “and he got very excited.” Explained Robison, “The opportunity to interrogate the genre and bring more cultural authenticity to the Western was very attractive to me as a director.” In fact, he was so enthusiastic that he proposed another co-commission to Joseph Haj, his counterpart at the Guthrie, who quickly agreed.
For all its departures from the original genre, their stage version would need a robust visual language. Zacarías’s script called for “stylized movement,” so Robison recruited Vanessa Severo, an actor/dancer/choreographer, as the production’s movement director. Last October Severo had performed her play Frida…A Self-Portrait at the Playhouse, a movement-driven solo piece about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, developed with director Joanie Schultz. Robison was certain Severo’s experience could deliver what Zacarías had in mind.
“We had to create a unique theatrical vocabulary to put a Western onstage,” he said. “You can’t compete with the movies—no stagecoaches, no horses. You have to find a way to tell the story that takes advantage of theatrical storytelling and sparks people’s imagination.”
Working closely with Robison and Zacarías, Severo devised choreographed movement that began with a character washing and dusting himself off, evolving into a sonic pulse that was frequently repeated throughout the 90-minute production. She said, “I tried to invoke the past, almost like beating the ground, trying to bring things back to life. We definitely wanted a rhythmic feel, something like pounding the earth to cooperate with us.”
Severo tuned into the link between intimacy and violence. As with many Westerns—including the famous shoot-out at the end of Shane between Alan Ladd and Jack Palance—tension precedes mayhem. “I really wanted to work in a suspended moment of tension,” she explained, “up to where we get to actual violence.”
Robison recruited fight choreographers Rick and Christian Sordelet and, with Severo, they deconstructed several moments of violence by honing in on the tension preceding the act. “Some people think tension is getting people close together,” Severo said, “but actually the more separated you are, the more tension there is.” The team used eight performers in a New York workshop and spaced them apart. “When there’s actually a lot of air in between them, with no eye contact, the tension is elevated,” she said. Time slowed down, making the violence, when it arrived, feel more intense.
On the first day of rehearsal, Severo had another idea: She stepped forward and offered to overlay movement on scene transitions rather than going to blackouts. “Let’s keep it continuously going, like a tornado,” she told the team. She gave the actors stylized movements, as chairs and a table were firmly and noisily planted onstage and deliberately moved off. Robison says, “It was about creating an ambience and reinforcing what I would describe as a physical, muscular landscape to this story. They don’t just carry chairs—they fling them over their shoulders.”
Said Zacarías, “You have to honor what people love about Westerns. Vanessa brought in some amazing elements of movement. We don’t have horses; we don’t have the panorama.” Severo’s detailed choreography, Zacarías maintains, makes “the idea of a new frontier, of building a new country with two chairs, part of the language of the play. Everything continues to be put up and can be pulled down again.”
In short, these the three creators and their extended team—especially sound designer Matthew Nielson and lighting designer Pablo Santiago—have managed to put a dramatic Western tale onstage, adding new elements that replace many of the genre’s traditional trappings. Shane’s spartan set, by Lex Liang, a series of dramatically lit ramps and a dirt floor, has moved from the Playhouse’s new mainstage, the Rouse Theatre, to the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage. It’s a place where a loner would feel right at home.
Rick Pender is an arts journalist, theatre critic, Sondheim resource, and retired public relations professional based in Cincinnati.
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