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Go west, young man, where the laughs are

The Wild West is coming to Elmira, but everything is not as it seems.

In two weeks, Elmira Theatre Company will present Norm Foster’s Outlaw, a play which finds Canadian Bob Hicks accused of murder while working in the U.S. The comedy is part of the theatre company’s fully Canadian season.

The story is set in 1871 in a small town outside of Kansas, called Baxter Springs.

Hicks is a Manitoba farmer who travels to the Unites States to work to support his family after he suffers an early frost and heeds warnings from the Farmer’s Alamanc that it will be a tough winter.

“He went down to Texas to take part in a cattle drive. The cattle drive pulled into Baxter Springs and from that point on things happen and he ended up in a sticky situation, he’s accused of a murder. And basically the rest of the story is about him trying to prove his innocence,” said director Thom Smith.

Producer Bev Dietrich has seen the play performed before and decided to put it forward to the play selection committee last year.

“It was funny, it was hilarious. It’s a different type of Norm Foster. It doesn’t take place in the box set, in the living room. It’s more tongue-in-cheek stuff, little zingers,” Dietrich explained.

The Elmira Theatre Company presents Norm Foster’s Outlaw for three weekends next month. Here, Tom Bolton, Steve Robinson, and Gord Cameron rehearse a scene from the show that finds a Canadian farmer in a sticky situation when he heads to the U.S. for work. Brian Otto rounds out the four-person cast. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
Smith took on the directing role for this play because he’s enjoyed putting together Norm Foster plays in previous years and this seemed a fun contrast to the last Foster production he’d directed, The Melville Boys.

He hasn’t seen the play performed before and that’s how he likes it.

“It’s almost one of my criteria, I don’t like to have seen the show before because then you come into it with some preconceived notions and I try to avoid that,” Smith said.

The all-male cast consists of four veteran actors. Tom Bolton plays Roland Keets, Gord Cameron  plays Will Vanhorne, Brian Otto plays Dupuis Tarwater and Steve Robinson plays Bob Hicks.

“Steve Robinson is our protagonist. Gord Cameron is the cattle hand who finds Bob out in the wild to bring him to justice. Brian Otto is the sheriff who is there to see that justice is done. And Tom Bolton is the cattle rancher whose brother was murdered,” Smith explains.

They started rehearsing at the end of August and the show opens on Feb. 3.

The set of the show is different than usual ETC plays. It’s minimalist and set outdoors rather than inside.

“I wanted it to come across more as a retelling of this story, sort of in a spirit of amazing stories of the Wild West. It’s almost, I use the word vaudeville, because it’s about that timeframe that we’re saying they’re putting this show on. But it could be something that was in Bill Hickok’s Wild West Show,” Smith said.

They’ve submitted this show for adjudication, which means an adjudicator will judge their Feb. 11 performance to be considered as one of the five shows selected for the Western Ontario Drama League Festival. Smith encourages the public to attend that performance if they’re interested in a brief public adjudication after the show and to show their support for the actors.

“It’s a nice chance for them to get some insight from a person that has a great deal of experience with theatre coming in and saying this is what I liked, this is what was really good, this is where some things could have been different.”

Just the theatre company will get a private, more detailed adjudication after that.

Each WODL theatre is welcome to submit a show for adjudication each year and those shows have the possibility to be selected for the WODL Festival. The winner of that goes on to the Theatre Ontario Festival.

“I’m trying not to let it put pressure on me. The idea here is that you put on a show, the best show you can for the audience that’s paid for their ticket. In my head this is just another one of those nights where we’re trying to put on the best show we can for the audience who have paid to be there,” Smith said.

Dietrich adds they try to pick a play to be adjudicated that has got some meat to it, that is worth being adjudicated too. The theatre company has been to the WODL Festival and the Theatre Ontario Festival numerous times.

The show touches on a variety of subtexts from gun control to war and Smith says there’s a lot that the audience could take away from the show, especially given each of the characters is wrongly judged at some point during the play.

“What I would like to think is people just come out a little more open minded about tolerance of others, not pre-judging, not jumping to conclusions. If there’s a lesson to be learned, I think that’s probably one of the more obvious lessons to be learned from this play,” Smith said.

Outlaw runs at Elmira Theatre Company’s 76 Howard Ave. location from Feb. 3-18. All shows are at 8 p.m., except for on Sundays, which are 2:30 p.m. matinees. Tickets are $20 and are available online at www.elmiratheatre.com or by calling 519-578-1570 or 1-800-265-8977.

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