By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
Alex Bechtel has emerged as one of the most well-rounded and talented young performers in Philadelphia. The 2008 University of the Arts graduate has worked with many top local companies, whether acting, singing and composing music for 1812 Productions, winning a Barrymore Award for musical direction at the Walnut Street Theatre, or helping create the social-media thriller Fatebook with New Paradise Laboratories.
However, he only reveals a portion of his promise in The West, an entertaining, yet thin 75-minute work he first developed as a member of the inaugural class of the Pig Iron School of Advanced Actor Training.
Bechtel’s piece opens on a provocative premise: a present-day auctioneer (Scott Sheppard) selling two 1875 Smith and Wesson revolvers, one of which killed Billy the Kid (Ben Grinberg), the other, an antique formed from the same molding, and long believed the murder weapon by notable collectors and celebrities. The West uses the guns as a launching point to examine philosophic questions about history, identity and belief, asking what constitutes the truth of history (or one’s life) if two coherent versions explain it equally?
The West explores these ideas through conflicting versions of Billy the Kid’s death and Pat Garrett’s role in history, contrasting their 1880s tale against that of the auctioneer—the proverbial man caught with his pants down—trying to understand his life after his wife leaves him.
A cast of 13 performs songs, pantomimed interludes, dance numbers and historical reenactments. Much of the material inspires laughter, and the original lyrics and music (particularly the title song, charismatically performed by Justin Rose’s Balladeer) would easily find a home on any country music station.
Like I said, Bechtel possesses tremendous gifts. But 75-minutes and a threadbare script fail to provide enough clues to string together a coherent narrative. I get it, that’s part of his point, asking the audience to see life, history, truth through these terms.
But this piece doesn’t earn its grand ideas, it merely winks at them. One scene alone alludes to Bechtel’s potential: A photographer (Dan Higbee) philosophizes about his daguerreotype’s ability to immortalize and distort, dragging a moment from the past into the present, “where it was never meant to be.” Profound, illuminating, but like a faded photograph, not enough to construct an entire evening.
The West. Presented through Sunday, March 30 at the Off Broad Street Theatre, 1636 Sansom St. Tickets: $15. Information: thewestplay.brownpapertickets.com