By David Greenham
Wild Horses is a sort of hybrid of familiar coming-of-age stories: Little Women meets Summer of ’42, with a dollop of Stand By Me tossed in for intrigue.
Wild Horses by Allison Gregory. Directed by Courtney Sale. Costumes designed by A. Lee Viliesis. Produced by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, in partnership with Mosaic Lowell. Performances at Stevens-Coolidge House and Gardens in North Andover; Stoklosa Middle School, Lowell; Whistler House Museum of Art in Lowell; Unitas Community Center, Lowell; Western Avenue Studios, Lowell; North Common Park, Lowell from September 17 through October 3. And on video on demand from October 4 through 17.
I haven’t been to all that many open mic evenings in my life, but I figure it is rare to attend one that lasts 90 minutes and doesn’t include at least a few weak or self-delusional performers. I’m happy to report that Wild Horses, Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s staging of playwright Allison Gregory’s open mic night, has talent to spare — it is consistently humorous and charming.
A musician (Rafael Molina) arrives with a guitar and a six pack to let us know that the show will start shortly. A minute later an energetic woman (Leenya Rideout) enters with her guitar. She’s first on the list. She pops open a beer and begins her cover of America’s “Horse with No Name.” After playing a few bars, she pauses to tell us the song reminds her of the summer when she was 13. She was living in California and a local radio station had a contest: If you give the winning name to the horse in the epic song, you could win a real mount from Morningstar Farms, the local horse ranch.
With that, Gregory’s memory play sends the woman (and us) for a wild ride down an entertaining coming-of-age rabbit hole. The girl and her best, best friends, “Zabby” and “Skinny Lynnie,” indulge themselves in a summer of adventure, filled with daring and stupidity. Gregory sets the dramatic context in an interview in the MRT program: “When we are young, everything has an edge to it. We look for the edges, try to scale them, and fall off all the time.”
Zabby, we learn, is Abby Zilker. “Zabby is everything I was afraid to be,” the narrator tells us. Zabby has two older brothers. The oldest, Dean, not only seems to be dangerous — he is. The narrator admits to having a crush on Donno, the younger one, even though he’s got a girlfriend, Tina White. “I wished Tina would die … peacefully,” she admits with the kind of mischievous smirk that a teenage girl can muster at will.
Skinny Lynnie is the least mature of the three girls, but she is game for all the daring antics. She hopes that, wherever the teens’ escapades take them, they will eventually end up at the Tastee Freeze. Their exploits include a raided liquor cabinet, hijinks with a waterbed, disclosing secrets about friends and family, trespassing at Morningstar Farms, and a tense moment of sexual assault averted by the strong-willed Zabby. The latter scene suggests that there is more going on here than yarns about adolescent mischief. The narrator tells us “that summer we knew that we’d been through something real. Something that changed everything.”
Wild Horses is a sort of hybrid of familiar coming-of-age stories: Little Women meets Summer of ’42, with a dollop of Stand By Me tossed in for intrigue. The narrative’s transitions draw on nostalgic ’70s hits, including “Barracuda,” “Wildfire,” “Brand New Key,” “Dancing in the Moonlight,” “Magic Man,” and, of course, the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”
Thankfully, the MRT has found a formidably skillful storyteller with the likable and entertaining Rideout. She seamlessly shifts from past to present, one moment beaming with the wide-eyed excitement of a 13-year-old, the next effortlessly commenting from an adult perspective.
As the functionary musician “host” of the open mic night, Molina provides fine musical support, his voice blending beautifully with Rideout’s.
As we linger in these days of pandemic uncertainty, theaters are looking for new ways to reach a cautious public — you could say they are making lemonade out the lemons Covid has handed us.
MRT’s version of the lemonade includes a three-week run of live performances. It is a local tour that presents the production in indoor and outdoor spots throughout Lowell as well as in nearby North Andover. They’ve hired Boston filmmaker Kathy Wittman to record a performance and create an on-demand offering of the show that will be streamed from October 4 through 17.
I chose to attend the live performance at the Whistler House Museum with the hope that it might have displayed a collaboration between visual art and theater. It didn’t. The performance took place in a meeting room gallery where the walls were filled with about 40 gilt-framed 19th- and early 20th-century paintings hung salon style. There, among the landscapes, portraits, and ships bounding across foamy waves, a platform for the performance was erected at one end of the room.
Other than A. Lee Viliesis’s contemporary costumes, there was no tech, no stage lighting. The lights in the exhibit space were it. Most noticeably missing was an effort to enhance the sound. There were microphones on stage and Rideout even used them to emphasize some quiet asides. Still, the hollow space posed some problems, which Rideout and Molina managed to handle.
The MRT’s stripped-down approach reinforces a growing concern of mine. These short-staffed skeletal efforts are a way to cut down on economic risk, with enough participants to satisfy Equity’s requirements. But for how long will audiences embrace a diet of slimmed-down theater?
I’m reminded of Gordon Craig’s century-old definition: “The art of theater is neither acting nor the play; it is not scene, nor dance, but consists of all the elements of which these things are composed.” It’s terrific that live theater is coming back but, as of now, not all of the elements have been taken out of lockdown.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.