Playwright: Shawn Pfautsch
At: The House Theatre of Chicago at the Viaduct, 3111 N. Ashland
Phone: 773-251-2195; $17-$22
Runs through: Nov. 4
BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
A truce was signed in 1891, but the surnames of Hatfield and McCoy live on in American vernacular as a synonym for long-standing intertribal warfare. The facts are as mysterious as the remote Appalachian mountain region where it occurred, but the legend has provided a literary source for countless variations of the star-crossed-lovers theme, with forbidden romance promising peace but most often ending in tragedy. For why should we care about family squabbles, if not for their analogies to larger communities commanding allegiance, even unto death?
So any surprises in The House Theatre of Chicago's Hatfield & McCoy are not to be found in its plot. Neither does its creative concept, while rejecting the xenophobic caricatures conjured by its milieu, neglect the troupe's trademark onstage orchestra performing a score of home-grown pop-styled ditties. And the company's bread-and-puppets branch supplies several episodes of faux-primitif period theatrics, their droll content commenting—barely—upon the action, in doing so making for the protracted running time also characteristic of this ensemble's productions.
But this is not to say that author Shawn Pfautsch contents himself with mere fulfillment of what House Theatre of Chicago's audiences have come to expect. For one, his narrative is considerably more historically accurate than it needs to be, reflecting extensive research. The events sparking the bloodbath that would claim the lives of men, women and children on both sides ( as well as several bounty hunters sent to arrest its promulgators ) are recounted in meticulous and grisly detail. And the characters' florid speech patterns, reminiscent of 17th-century England, acknowledge the likelihood of the indigenous households' sole library consisting of the King James Bible and Shakespeare's plays.
All this notwithstanding, the opening-night show was still at the unready: plot complications are introduced, only to be abandoned. The final confrontation ( s ) between the intransigent patriarchs continue far longer than necessary. And director Matthew Hawkins' vigorous choreography requires further cleaning. But following on the heels of last season's The Kentucky Cycle, The House Theatre of Chicago presents a sweeping and astonishingly compassionate pageant of the dark chapter in our nation's chronicles, engendering stereotypes of trigger-happy hillfolk to this day.