Alex Bechtel’s world-premiere production THE WEST is packing the house at the Off-Broad Street Theater in its short six-performance run. The ensemble-devised work, with Bechtel as the lead creator and director, features a cast of twelve emerging Philadelphia theater artists and an absurdist reinvention of the last days of the notorious Western gunman Billy the Kid. Told through movement, mime, music, and dialogue, this original concept combines fact with fantasy, drama with slapstick, and real-life figures with fictional characters, in a unique time-traveling examination of historical inaccuracies (“True or false?”) and human relationships gone wrong.
Among the highlights of the show is the opening scene, in which Scott Sheppard and Nick Gillette play auctioneers selling two guns: the one that killed Billy the Kid, and an identical gun—manufactured on the same day in the same factory—that did not. Their mock seriousness and hilarious attention to minutiae as they describe the objects’ provenance is familiar to anyone who has ever attended an upscale auction or watched “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS.
Live songs performed by The Balladeer (Justin Rose), accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and banjo (original music and sound design by Bechtel), sets the western tone, while his direct-address asides to the audience and the actors provide both a break from the action and a part of the action. Beautiful lighting by Dominic Chacon effectively recreates the flash of a 19th-century daguerreotype camera, as the characters pose for their portraits and the photos preserve them for posterity; it’s a haunting and evocative metaphor (camera as gun, and photograph as subliminal murder of those now dead), that adds profundity to the absurdity and physical humor. [The Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St] March 26-30, 2014; www.thewestplay.brownpapertickets.com.