The rock-based notes of an Ennio Morricone-like melody inform us that, once again, it’s once upon a time in the West.  The year is 1847 and the tiny Nevada town of San Lorenzo has been enslaved by a ruthless villain known only as Lagarto. Showdown time has arrived, and the town sheriff orders his teenage daughter Lucinda to get inside.  “You do it for Mama,” Lucy cries out. “You kill him for her!”  The sheriff looks the evil Lagarto in the eye and informs him, “This is your last chance.  Take your men and be on your way.”  “You look like a simple man,” responds Lagarto, “so I’ll keep it simple. No.” And with that, he shoots the sheriff, then his deputy.  Pulling out an enormous knife, he grabs Lucy and tells her, “I like you. I think I’m going to keep you.” Lagarto then proceeds to slit the sheriff’s throat with the knife until his blood is splattered everywhere.

No, it is not the 1960s and we are not watching a Sergio Leone spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. Where we are is a 99-seat theater on Beverly Boulevard, about a mile and a half from downtown Los Angeles, watching Stranger, a live stage production quite unlike any other reviewed on this site. Billing itself as “a new Spaghetti Western Musical,” Stranger is a thrilling (and often hilarious) tribute slash lampoon of A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.  With a pulsating background score by Anthony Bollas performed at rock concert volume by a live band, several songs, fights, and dances, and a cast that plays it dead serious, Stranger isn’t quite a musical, isn’t quite a comedy, isn’t quite a drama. What it is is entirely its own genre, and great entertainment as well. 

The Man With No Name has become the titular “Stranger,” brought to uncannily Eastwoodian life by Cameron Dye, garbed in an Ann Closs-Farley-designed costume that pays homage to those which young Clint wore in his spaghetti days.  San Lorenzo is the latest and possibly the last stop on Stranger’s ceaseless journey to escape his violent past, violence seeming to follow him everywhere. 

Entering the town saloon, Stranger picks up a bottle of whisky to pour himself a drink. “You drop that bottle or I’ll blow a hole straight through you,” orders town whore Miranda (Closs-Farley).  “You got a name?” she inquires, and when Stranger remains silent, she asks, “What brings you to this dusty turd of a town?  Some sort of death wish?”  Stranger asks about a renting a room for the night and Miranda informs him, “It’s five dollars for a room.  If you want a woman, it’s gonna be an extra two bucks. And I’m warning you, it’s gonna be me.”

Meanwhile, back in the saloon, Stranger awakes to find two men in black about to attack. Before you can say “pasta,” he has shot them both, ripped out one of their tongues, and plopped it on the counter.  He turns to Miranda and, in a toneless voice, asks her to shoot him dead.  “It’s only fair,” he tells her. “I killed that man.  Kill me.” Oh, but this Stranger does seem to have a death wish.

The Mexican town padre (Joe Hernandez-Kolski) begs Stranger to stick around. He is precisely what the town has been waiting for, someone to free them from Lagarto’s reign of terror. Stranger, who is simply looking for a place to die, refuses.

Lagarto (Michael Dunn) has his own plans for Stranger. Summoning him to his headquarters, he offers Stranger a job replacing Moonface, the man Stranger has killed.  As proof of his capacity for evil, Lagarto has one of his men bring out Lucy (Molly O’Neill), who has been transformed from sweet young thing into a sexy wild beast clad in a black miniskirt and boots, who loves nothing better than to chew on human flesh. 

Shocked by what Lagarto has done to the previously innocent Lucy, Stranger makes a deal to help him in his nefarious plans.

Will Stranger become the malevolent Lagarto’s accomplice in terror?  Will Lucy be set free? Will a bunch more people die?

Though anyone familiar with the Eastwood-Leone oeuvre can guess the answers to these questions, the fun, the drama, the suspense, the blood, the whips, the gunshots, the loud, loud music—all of this has, in the words of Karen Carpenter, “only just begun.”

Eva Anderson and Keythe Farley’s dialog is just over-top-enough to be funny, yet entirely faithful to the genre being honored.  Under Farley’s incisive direction, the same can be said about the performances of the pitch-perfect ensemble.

As Stranger, Dye holds everything inside brilliantly in true Eastwood tradition. A terrific Hernandez-Kolski channels every actor who ever played a Mexican padre in a Leone film. Closs-Farley brings the sultry, straight-shooting Lucinda to perfect hard-bitten life.  Dunn is as deliciously evil as any spaghetti western villain ever was. O’Neill does sensational work as possibly the most vicious, blood-thirsty ingénue ever to grace an L.A. stage. Supporting the leads in a variety of flawlessly realized roles are Richard Azurdia, Wallis Herst, Travis Michael Holder, Dylan Kenin, and David Natale.

Stranger succeeds beautifully, on many levels and in many ways.  Fans of 60s Italo-Westerns will pick up on the many references to those films set in the American Southwest but filmed in the Andalusia region of Spain.  Rock music fans will thrill to musical directors Bollas’ inspired tribute to Morricone, performed by Bollas (guitar), Tim Ford (bass), Vince O’Campo (drums), Gardo Ramirez (lead guitar), Drew Von Ah (lead guitar), and Kelly Wright (MPC/SP-404). Theater lovers will appreciate the finely-tuned performances of Stranger’s couldn’t-be-better cast, who pay straight-faced homage to their film archetypes with performances heightened just enough to make them both real … and quite often really funny.

Francois-Pierre Couture’s set design evokes the hot dusty Southwest plains, with sliding wooden panels which allow for quick, effective scene changes.  Closs-Farley’s costumes, wigs, and make-up all have a great, authentic Old West look about them (as seen through Italian eyes). Lighting by Dan Weingarten is varied, inventive, and highly effective as is Rebecca Kessin’s sound design, despite the decibel level being occasionally cranked up too high for my tastes.  With fight choreography by Victor Warren and dance choreography by Bradley Michaud, Strangers’ spectacular fight/dance sequences are so seamlessly intertwined that it’s often hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Like last year’s Joe’s Garage, Stranger has already become a kind of cult hit, attracting audiences who might normally never set foot in a 99-seat theater. More traditional playgoers need not be concerned, however. No matter which way you categorize it, Stranger is great theater, pure and simple.

Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles.
–Steven Stanley
June 17, 2009
                                                                                         Photos: Tim Ford

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