Rubicon Theatre gives us a brilliant US Premier of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
At the Rubicon Theatre in downtown Ventura, audiences have come to expect great acting and intelligent staging; Rubicon's US premier of Jethro Compton’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is no exception.
The play originally opened in London’s Park Theatre in 2014, was a hit, and now is approaching a hundred productions in motion, so it is a bit of a coup for Rubicon to get the US premier.
The play is adapted from the same Dorothy M. Johnson short story that fed John Ford’s 1962 classic film starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, with Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and John Carradine, among others. It does not really matter whether you’ve seen or remember John Ford’s film, the play is immensely satisfying either way. There are considerable differences: entire subplots, scenes, and characters in the film have been stripped out of the play to its great benefit.
As for the acting, Gregory Harrison’s plays Bert Barricune, a gruff cowboy who’s the best shot around, the analog to John Wayne’s Doniphon in Ford’s film. Sylvie Davidson plays a delightful Hallie, the part played by Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard in the film. The incomparable Jeff Kober plays a brilliant Liberty Valance, Lee Marvin’s character. Jacques Roy plays Ransome Foster, essentially the lead in the play, played by Jimmy Stewart as Ransom Stoddard in the film. Dorian Logan debuts at the Rubicon as Reverend Jim, a part considerably expanded over Ford’s Pompei and given a far more central roll in the play. Local favorite Joseph Fuqua gives us a more complex Marshal, played by Andy Devine in the film.
Stacking the die against justice, Dorian Logan and Jeff Kober with Dillon G Artzer and Dillon Francis looking on in the background. In the American premiere of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Jethro Compton at the Rubicon Theatre, Ventura CA, Photo credit: Jeanne Tanner
Beyond Good and Evil
At the core of all versions of the story, including Dorothy Johnson’s original, is Hallie, the owner of the saloon in a small southwestern town of Two Trees where the play is set. Some writers suggest she is a stand-in for the author herself, who was evidently a strong-willed, gritty, independent woman and proud of it.
Sylvie Davidson’s Hallie stomps and sparkles and though at times maybe a bit overdone, she carries the play and we get the point: this is one proud, kick-ass woman and no one is going to mess with her--and, in the end, no one will wonder why more than one man has fallen in love with her.
Ultimately this is a story about honor and justice among men, with clear forces of good and evil. Thus it lives or dies with how well the two men portray these forces: Bert Barricune, the gritty professional cowboy and best gun in the territory verses Liberty Valance, the outlaw who terrorizes that same territory. For these parts, Rubicon brings in the heavy artillery of Gregory Harrison’s deftly done Barricune and Jeff Kober’s extraordinarily good Liberty Valance.
Jacques Roy’s Ransom Foster and Dorian Logan’s Reverend Jim round out Hallie’s immediate world and are the central focus of many of the play’s scenes. Logan makes an excellent debut at the Rubicon and in his key drinking set pieces with Roy and later, with Kober, their ensemble work achieves a punch that carries the play to another level.
Joseph Fuqua’s Marshal takes his character into territory far beyond his film counterpart’s, as we see Fuqua once again extend and put his own, powerful stamp onto parts made famous by others long before his time.
Fuqua and Logan, not to mention Harrison’s Barricune and Kober’s Liberty Valance are so good, that Roy’s lead is sorely pushed to stay ahead of the game. But then, Ransom’s part is difficult to cast and to play. Even in the film, the legendary Jimmy Stewart faced some difficulties trying to get this character right. Roy, after all, has to play a strong, but weak, rooted but rootless character with a strong conscience who faces an unconscionable predicament. Not a task for timid talents.
There is a small problem of credibility in the story that Ford’s film, despite the best efforts of his actors, is not able to overcome. In the film there is a point where it is fair to wonder why doesn’t the best shot in the territory [John Wayne’s Doniphon character] simply hunt down Liberty Valance and rid everyone of this rascal?
A triumph in the desert of moral ambiguity, Sylvie Davidson, Jospeh Fuqua, and Jacques Roy in the American premiere of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, at the Rubicon Theatre, Ventura, CA . Photo credit: Jeanne Tanner.
This question does not come up in the Rubicon’s production, primarily because Jeff Kober’s powerful and deliciously evil Liberty Valance is so infused with ruthless philosophical wiliness and intelligence we are never in doubt why this guy can terrorize everyone without challenge. Clearly it is going to take more than the best shot around; you’re going to have to outwit this monster.
This changes several dynamics in the play for the better. For instance, Fuqua’s Marshal does not seem driven quite so much by the outright cowardice portrayed in the film, but more by a rationally appropriate prudence, and Fuqua plays him in this more understanding, and in some ways, far more interesting and ambiguously intriguing light.
All in all, this complexity and depth in the acting is indicative of the finesse pervading every aspect of this production. There are three scenes, for example, featuring two men drinking and going over critical plot territory. Two each with Harrison/Barricune, Kober/Vance, and Logan/Reverend Jim. Each one is superbly done, giving the play a dimension entirely lacking in the film.
Of Myth and Magic
One of the great strengths of this production is Rubicon’s decision to infuse a mythic dimension into the production, taking the play to another level not fully required by the script, proving once again that the Rubicon doesn’t just do plays, they do something with them.
As the play opens, we are immediately cued into the sense that there is a mythic force within this tale. This is subtly done by the set and lighting and an opening sequence featuring Trevor Wheetman’s beautifully sung rendition of the Wayfaring Stranger. The effect is furthered by George Ball’s gravelly sonorous voice-over dripping with gravitas. Wheetman’s underscoring, the lighting, and Ball’s voice-over retain the effect later in the play as well.
Keeping her best interests in sight, Sylvie Davidson and Gregory Harrison as Bert Barricune in the American premiere of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Rubicon Theatre, Ventura, CA. Photo: Jeanne Tanner.
As for the subtly stripped down set, we are inside Hallie’s saloon; but on either side, far stage left and right, loom two enormous, wonderfully scraggly trees. The two trees of the town’s name presumably. But trees. We are inside a saloon. It’s almost Wagnarian. The play is probably too engaging for most to consciously notice at first, but when you think about it, this is not a rational set.
This set and opening are an absolutely brilliant stroke. They tell us we are not in a specific time and place here, we are in the timeless realm of myth, of fable, a realm beyond time and space.
As the play unfolds we realize we are in not only in the midst of a legend, but that it is the legend of an old American West suffused with political and social realities relevant to present-day America, of an archetypal tale of love and honor and evil and revenge and justice and power and ambition and forgiveness and sorrow, but with a script and acting full of fully articulated characters with all manner of inner contradictions, conflicted loyalties, layered motivations, confounding flaws, philosophically reflective evil. All told with great humor by an outsider, a young, hip Englishman, no less.
Juicy stuff my friends.
From Across the Pond
The play is written by Jethro Compton, a young  up-and-coming London theatre dynamo who writes, directs, and produces independent theatre projects. He’s already written two ambitious trilogies produced to significant critical acclaim, the World War I-based The Bunker Trilogy, and The Frontier Trilogy, which includes this play.
Compton’s work features carefully crafted, psychological tensions with ample doses of humor set within contexts where he can explore highly charged political issues. It is a heady and timely mix that has captured a lot of attention overseas and is fully evident in this play.
Rubicon’s production fully understands all this, exploiting the contemporary political implications and dynamics of Compton’s play with a deftly realized interpretation of their own that pushes the play in a fascinating and extremely rewarding direction.
One may wonder why an Englishman would think or be interested in taking on such a clearly American classic to do a play, until you realize something that most Americans do not know. John Ford’s westerns have a fairly unique status in Europe and European film criticism.
Audience-wise, the effect is similar to how American’s experienced Japanese samurai films in the post-war era. There are many Japanese directors who have done samurai films, but chances are, if an American has seen a samurai film, they have seen a Kurosawa samurai film. So it is with European filmgoers and John Ford’s westerns; if they’ve seen an American western, as opposed to, say, a spaghetti western, chances are it was a Ford western. Especially in France, the UK, and Germany, Ford’s westerns enjoy a special status, and thus a likely take-off point for a young, ambitious writer in one of these countries.
Combine this with America’s current status in the world, it then becomes a short leap to imagine a young, ambitious British playwright who wants to take a look at our culture and power and its roots, to go back to the source behind a John Ford classic.
Besides, this particularly story has a lot of the kind of psychological and sociological underbelly that seems to permeate Compton’s work, though it is a bit shaky to say this as this exceptionally talented playwright is still quite young and could go on in any number of different directions.
Ford vs Compton
All this should help make clear that what John Ford and what Jethro Compton were trying to produce are two entirely different beasts.
Both have political dimensions, or considering Ford’s and Compton’s temperaments it would be more accurate to say socio-political dimensions.
Ford was working at the height of the Cold War and wants to put forth a sort of Manifest Destiny argument; a perspective that exists in some of the best of his other films as well.
Ford also tends to be interested in specific historical conflicts within the American West, such as the conflict between cattlemen and agricultural interests over an open range. Ford also had a career-long interest in the rule of law and its war against what we today would call a form of terrorism, but to Ford and the old west was simply labeled as lawlessness. Ford was interested in what honest, conscientious men should do in the face of injustice.
In short, Ford liked to wrap his films around a moral tale based on an authentic historical setting.
The core plot of Dorothy Johnson’s story also features a set-up that is pure John Ford: men competing for the same women who have ironically interwoven loyalties. This allows him to build a tension-ridden personal narrative against his larger, historical [read social-political agenda] backdrop.
European film and cultural critics have long loved this, often not to America’s advantage. They have tended to see all the perils, contradictions, and insanity of modern America, its politics, guns, and policy, embryonically wrapped up in Ford’s take on the wild West.
Compton is essentially coming from the other side of this equation. He’s presumably reasonably aware of, or at the very least in a milieu that has been informed by this critical tradition and is looking at the contemporary political landscape and writing a play that unpacks the underlying tensions within America’s contradictions.
Compton, as revealed in his other work, also likes an interpersonal terrain that is happily fed by Johnson’s core story; a terrain strewn with internally conflicted characters.
One place Ford and Compton differ is in their humor. Ford’s is dry and barely evident, while Compton swims in it. Compton, after all, is the child of an immense tradition of British theatrical humor. This alone makes his play a considerably different experience, for it is frequently very funny.
Another place where Ford and Compton differ is in where they place race within their respective narratives. PhD. dissertations could be written on this one.
Ford for the most part ignores it, but treats it with dignity, and seems to want a world that is color-blind. At specific points all three of the principle characters treat the lone black man [Pompei, played by Woody Strode] with dignity and deep respect, and Pompei is portrayed as extremely competent with a certain power--in fact, highly feared by the outlaws when he’s wielding a rifle. At one point Wayne’s character sticks up for him and insists Pompei be able to drink with him at a bar that is barred to non-whites. In short, no one messes with Pompei; but otherwise, Ford wants to keep him out of sight and race out of the primary story arc.
Compton, on the other hand, places race dead center in his story. As someone living outside of America, Compton’s play betrays an implied criticism of Ford for looking the other way when race and race violence plays such an integral part of American history, now more so than ever.
Compton’s Reverend Jim is nowhere near as powerful as Ford’s Pompei. Compton is more interested in how Jim feels like he doesn’t fit in even though he is born and raised in Two Trees and has never been outside town. Compton’s Jim has no illusions that he has either power, status, or freedom in this town of his birth, and he certainly doesn’t wield a rifle while criminals cower. People mess with him. Big time.
Compton’s Jim is allowed to have something Ford’s Pompei is denied: a voice, a supreme intelligence, and an insight into other people that the whites around him do not all have. He reassures Ransom that Hallie loves him. In Compton's play he is a major protagonist, stage center, and in the play, it is his tragedy that drives the story to its ironic resolution.
The play has already played to enthusiastic audiences in both the UK and Canada so far, and who knows? It may eventually turn out to be an international theatrical hit, a true rarity.
Rubicon Box Office for single and group tickets:
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, by Jethro Compton. An adaptation from the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson that inspired the legendary John Ford 1962 film
at the Rubicon Theatre
Located in Ventura’s downtown cultural district
1006 East Main Street, Ventura, CA 93001
Running through Sunday 20 March 2016.
Rubicon Theatre Company announces EXTENSION through SATURDAY, MARCH 26