How Shakespeare Won The West by Richard Nelson

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Richard Nelson
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How Shakespeare Won The West

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Book review

The play tells the story of a ragtag troupe of actors as they head West during the Gold Rush, seeking fortune and fame and performing Shakespeare for enthusiastic '49ers. But with stiff competition, romantic entanglements, and an Indian chief who sees himself in King Lear, their ambitious cross-country adventure is complicated by the teeming challenges and glories of the new American frontier. Embracing elements of Shakespearean comedy and American vaudeville, HOW SHAKESPEARE WON THE WEST is a jubilant celebration of the human spirit. "Engaging, energetic, amusing, and clearly in love with the art of telling stories onstage ... The mix of laughter and tears feels right for the ridiculous but touching tale of a ragtag group of theatrical journeymen and has-beens who, unable to find work in New York and hearing rumors of Gold Rush riches, form a stage troupe and head west. The opening scenes in New York, which have the actors gathering in a tavern and trading stories of shows they've endured - from playing third banana to a pair of screeching child stars doing bad Shakespeare to carrying out schemes for P T Barnum - are both hilarious and based, more or less loosely, in historical fact. Funny as they are, they also make it clear just why these people are desperate enough to strike off into the wilderness, leaving everything but their vague dreams of stardom behind. The New York theater scene of the 1800s that Nelson pains so vividly is a free-for-all, and perhaps less a wilderness than the one they're headed to. These early scenes introduce the plays central structural device, which is a key part of its charm. All the characters take turns serving as narrator, sometimes interrupting or correcting or embellishing each other's stories, and as one recalls an incident, others act it out. This makes for a vivid and truly playful atmosphere onstage, one that celebrates the imaginative power of acting by - well, by acting. What's most rewarding about HOW SHAKESPEARE WON THE WEST is the lively collaborative spirit that this structure creates. We're getting to know Nelson's characters through their stories, which they're at once telling and living ... This sprawling, lively tale of wild spirits in the Wild West feels fresh, stimulating, and American in the best way." -Louise Kennedy, The Boston Globe "A rollicking history lesson on American expansion, a celebration of this country's long love affair with Shakespeare, a chronicle of the can-do pioneering spirit and a valentine to the transformative powers of the theater." -Frank Rizzo, Variety

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