Outlaw at the Foster Festival
Norm Foster’s Outlaw, is not a new play, but its setting and subject matter were new to me, quite unlike any Foster play I have previously seen. Instead of contemporary middle-class suburban Canadians, Outlaw gives us three pistol-packing Americans in Kansas in the years after the Civil War and one hapless Canadian who doesn’t believe in guns.
Outlaw is being mounted in a “site-specific” production in a 140-year-old barn at the Ball’s Falls Historic Village near St. Catherines, Ontario, and it’s a hoot.
Bob Hicks (an impressive Jesse Dwyer), a young, clean-living family man from Rat Creek, Manitoba, is heading home to his wife and six-year-old daughter from a stint driving cattle in Kansas. He is roused from a sound sleep next to his campfire on the prairie by Will Vanhorne (Matthew Olver) a no-nonsense hired man of cattle baron Roland Keets (George Masswohl). Vanhorne has been dispatched to track down the man who shot Keets’ brother and fled into the night.
The dutiful Vanhorne brings Bob, who is astounded to find he’s been accused of murder, to the “hanging rock” and slips a noose over his head. His instructions are that all must be in order when the boss arrives to wreak vengeance on his brother’s killer.
Desperately protesting his innocence, Bob manages to wrest some concessions from Vanhorne. He gets to roll a cigarette and is allowed to come down off the hanging rock, but his professions of innocence fall on deaf ears. Vanhorne is one of those “just doin’ my job” types. The two are soon joined by the not-too-bright Sheriff Dupuis Tarwater (Peter Krantz in a splendid comic performance) who had gone off in another direction in search of the killer.
The repartee between the three, as Bob tries to talk his way out of his predicament and Tarwater looks forward to the hanging is vintage Foster. There are plenty of funny lines in Outlaw sprinkled with colorful turns of phrase. It’s almost as if Foster had written his master’s thesis on Blazing Saddles.
When the well-educated Keats arrives, things take a more serious turn and when Bob reveals to Keets that he’d heard that the dead brother had been canoodling with Keets’ wife, things turn very serious indeed.
Of course, in addition to being a light comedy in the usual Foster vein, Outlaw is a murder mystery. If Bob is innocent, which seems fairly obvious, then whodunnit?
Agatha Christie typically enlisted a small army of potential murderers for her whodunnits. In a four character Norm Foster play, with one of those present clearly innocent, there are not a lot of suspects to go around.
Even so, Foster does a masterful job in Outlaw of engineering something of a surprise ending. The guilty party seemed screamingly obvious to me and I was wrong.
Of course it could be that I’m just dense. I prefer to believe that Foster is a very clever writer.
Director Jim Mezon, an actor late of the Shaw Festival, who has taken increasingly to directing, has elicited terrific performances from his players. Young Dwyer turns in a remarkably realistic portrait of a man facing almost certain death; oddly, the verisimilitude adds to rather than detracts from the humour.
Peter Krantz, also a former Shaw regular, hams it up shamelessly. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. This is comic acting that goes to the very brink of “too much” but never crosses the line.
George Masswohl not only looks the perfect Hollywood image of the ruthless cattle baron, but he turns in a commanding performance as well.
As the short-spoken Vanhorne, who slowly unravels the mystery by piecing together the inconsistencies Foster has woven into the dialog, Matthew Olver has the least flashy part but he plays it well.
The production of Outlaw is simplicity itself, a square raised platform with the audience on three sides, and Mezon makes good use of it. A moment in which the beer drinking sheriff walks to the edge of the stage and appears ready to relieve himself on the head of a white-haired lady in the front row was priceless.
Kudos, too, to Peter Hartwell, whose costumes capture the period very well indeed. The portly cattle baron’s outfit is particularly good and I want that hat. Hartwell also did the minimal set. Zack Milne’s sound design provided offstage horses and distant wolves.
Outlaw is almost certain to engage Foster fans. For those who are new to the work of Canada’s most prolific playwright, it makes a terrific introduction.
Outlaw plays at the barn in Ball’s Falls through July 2, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Foster festival website.
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