Gather ‘round and witness the amazing, unbelievable tale of Injun Bill Picote, an outlaw and loner with his mind set on unlawful justice. Playwright Joseph Zettelmaier takes inspiration from a gruesomely morbid historical footnote and fashions it into Dead Man’s Shoes, a unique Western-comedy hybrid with bawd and bite. The world-premiere production, a joint offering by Williamston Theatre and Performance Network Theatre with direction by David Wolber, marries component skill and tight cohesion into a masterpiece of workmanship with entertainment value to match.
Portrayed by Drew Parker, Injun Bill is already a noted killer and ne’er-do-well by the play’s start. In a jail cell somewhere in the lawless West, he makes the inescapable acquaintance of the defiantly enthusiastic Froggy (Aral Gribble), a misfit Creole now purposeless and drunk since his employment as General Custer’s cook was, let’s say, terminated. Froggy instantly cleaves to his infamous companion, and when circumstances allow for the pair’s release, the adrift ready-made sidekick has already signed on to aid in the renegade’s quest, a mission straight out of the truth-stranger-than-fiction vault. After Injun Bill’s only friend in the world was publicly killed, an influential doctor purchased the man’s remains and made a horrific memento of his skin. Leaning on the excesses and indignities of this (totally true, and hideously documented) act, the story plainly roots for the vigilante hero to find the titular shoes and kill their contemptible possessor.
Supporting the protagonists on their journey are a pair of players (Paul Hopper and Maggie Meyer), who step in and out of the action, sharing narrative duties, facilitating transitions, and inhabiting a handful of characters each in a succession of ominously empty — and sometimes brutally savaged — settlements. They also further elevate celebrity and legend by conveying the story in song, trading verses and accompanying themselves on guitar. In character, Meyer exudes the prairie toughness of women variously surviving in an uncivilized wasteland, but also excels in neatly capping scenes with a sassy quip; such clipped endings add to the definite cinematic flow of the story. From misunderstood jailer to wary old acquaintance, Hopper exhibits a range that leaps from outrageously funny to inscrutably foreboding. Together, they excel as guides as well as portals into the heart of the plot.
This framework is also exquisitely served by the production’s design team. Beginning with a hands-on changing backdrop display and shopworn platform stage by designer Kirk Domer, the players guide the audience outside-in and back without a hitch, aided further by Will Myers’s subtle auditory enhancements and Stefanie Din’s conspicuous onstage sound effects and other storytelling properties. Similarly, lights by Daniel C. Walker selectively command attention, in occasional gorgeous foot-lit extremes and timely stunners. Costumes by Amber Marisa Cook evoke a period feel without strict authenticity, lavishing attention onto details that reward the up-close advantages of intimate seating, including a particular compelling-reviling accessory.
But topping the long list of superlatives in this show is the complex partnership between Parker and Gribble, a relationship Wolber ensures is won, not just made. Much more than a willing foil, Gribble the performer establishes his equal share in an alpha-beta arrangement, eagerly playing the bumbling fool but just as competently taking charge of the scene in his hapless Froggy way. For his part, Parker is the very picture of a badass, shrouding Injun Bill in an aura of mystery and danger that sells him as a living legend. At the same time, the actor knows just how to dash off a supremely funny punchline without breaking his tight-jawed stride — it’s amazing, and exactly what this genre-splayed play calls for. As they bounce from farcical scenarios to horrific devastations over the play’s two acts, Zettelmaier’s style fuses classic Western and road-trip buddy comedy and makes it all belong, bridging eras with the saltiest of language whose modern turns of phrase have a comprehensible fit that avoids the stink of anachronism.
A powerhouse combination of inventive script and skillful execution, Dead Man’s Shoes isn’t a hilarious comedy as well as a thrilling and redemptive hero myth — it’s both in astounding symbiosis, perfectly inextricable. Moreover, this seamless production taps into the script to borrow old devices and visit familiar beats, but has a plot and feel all its own. Viewers should brace themselves to burst out laughing from the very edge of their seats, to recoil and thrill in quick succession, and to get swept up in a first-rate story that nevertheless demands nothing of its audience but to enjoy.