The Big Muddy

Photo by Bill GrazierIt is possible to watch the full 100 minutes of Devil's River and be constantly engrossed by the wild, trippy nature of Sledgehammer Theatre's latest foray into theatrical experimentation. As always, you'll marvel at the troupe's ability to do things few would dare attempt—and fewer still could pull off.

You might even think that you "get it"—if a play billed as a world-premiere ensemble creation that attempts to reconstruct some of America's most enduring myths about life along the frontier can be gotten.

But then you might read director Kirsten Brandt's program notes, in which you'll encounter allusions to the Native American medicine wheel and animism, e.e. cummings snippets, and warrior spirits. Director's notes are relatively unimportant, and these wind up confusing rather than clarifying Devil's River. A play that stands on its own as a largely compelling theatrical experience suddenly feels bloated, pretentious and awfully self-important. So don't read the notes.

Devil's River is a haunting look at some choice American myths turned savagely on their rotten little heads in a decidedly feminist take by the fiercely talented Brandt. As the company's artistic director, she's Sledgehammer's lead pulverizer.

The overriding myth, much as it was in Howard Korder's 2000 play at South Coast Repertory The Hollow Lands, is the frontier. Subordinate myths include the God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth pioneers who settled the land; liberated outlaws who hold to a rigid code of honor; and politicians entrusted with preserving the land for future generations.

In two cases, Brandt delivers a vicious reversal of those hallowed myths. The stolid farmers of American Gothic are revealed as an American nightmare, owners of stinking swampland, the woman a slave going slowly insane. The lone gunman who lives outside the law is unmasked as a bloodthirsty female vigilante, angry about laws written without the consent of her sex.

There are stutters and starts toward other stories —one involving an idealistic junior senator and his mistress, another about a buyer of souls and a seller of life insurance—but they don't amount to much. And all of it is bound up in the ebullient machinations of Coyote, the chaotic trickster who exists, apparently, to fuck things up by revealing humanity's true face.

It's a lot to track, and this is only a hint of the many scents, fumes and odors wafting from Brandt's cauldron. It's dime-store novels and John Steinbeck, Davy Crockett and Bill Clinton. But more than anything, it's James Brown—as in "this is a man's world." That point is hammered home in typically unsubtle Sledgehammer fashion; it would get tiring if it weren't so stimulating. The performers are fearless, Brandt's direction is fluid and frenetic, and the scenic and technical elements are marvelously portentous and evocative.

Devil's River is one of those productions that seems to reach for so much but ends up grasping very little. It would help if Brandt's notes didn't indicate so obviously that this "jazz riff on folklore" is supposed to feel weightier and more meaningful than it does. Devil's River could easily be appreciated for what it plays like onstage: as a crude metaphor for America's most enduring myth—the road and the river, a turgid, swollen monster that takes as much life as it gives. Devil's River at Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 6th Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through March 11. $15-$20; student discounts available.


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