Outlaw Rides Comic-Dramatic Range
Kitchener-Waterloo Record
Wednesday March 3, 2004

REVIEW -- The last time I saw four men onstage in a Norm Foster comedy, they were golfers. The foursome onstage in Outlaw have traded their clubs for six-shooters. The comic western received its world premiere Friday at Theatre Orangeville. This is the third Foster comedy to premiere at Theatre Orangeville in as many seasons. It's directed by Chris McHarge, former Theatre on the Grand artistic director. McHarge is an old hand at directing Foster world premieres and he displays a deft hand here balancing comedy with drama. Although Outlaw has enough humour to fill a 10-gallon stetson, it's neither satire nor parody. Instead, it pays tribute to a literary genre that has been a mainstay of film and television even if few westerns have made it to the stage.

Foster is a master of characterization and he succeeds here. Although the characters closely adhere to stereotype, we respond to them as dyed-in-the-wool cowboys. McHarge can be forgiven for feeling extra pressure directing Outlaw, because the cast includes not one, but two directors who have headed theatres. Theatre Orangeville artistic director David Nairn plays Dupius Tarwater, a blow-hard sheriff who's difficult to trust. Meanwhile, Walter Learning -- founding artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick (where he would have first met Foster) and former artistic director of Vancouver Playhouse and Charlottetown Festival -- plays Roland Keets, a powerful cattle baron with the demeanour of Burl Ives. The cast is rounded out by Waterloo's Terry Barna as the dusty wrangler Will Vanhorne, and Darren Keay as the hapless outlaw Bobby Hicks. The foursome create a winning chemistry with Nairn having loads of fun hamming it up. Keay and Barna are especially engaging as an innocent lassoed by circumstances beyond his control and as a man of conscience, respectively.

Set on the Kansas frontier in 1871, Outlaw tells of the tribulations Bobby suffers after he leaves his pretty wife and young daughter on a small farm in Manitoba to earn money driving cattle south of the border. Although he doesn't believe in guns -- he's Canadian after all -- he's accused of killing Keets' no-good brother. It would be misleading to suggest there are surprises in Outlaw. No matter. As with most of Foster's plays, the fun is in the ride, not the destination.

Outlaw isn't strapped with any heavy political messages. Nonetheless, it's difficult not to view the play in the context of relations between Canada and our neighbour to the south, past and present. Vaughn Davis' set is visually striking. However, it seems to resemble northern Ontario more than the Kansas high plains. The little bit of genre music provided by sound designer Elissa Horscroft is effective. If anything, there could be more of it. Writing hits isn't much of a stretch for Canada's most produced and prolific playwright. What is amazing is how Foster continues to write hits while expanding his theatrical vocabulary.

Terry Barna as Will Vanhorne and David Nairn as Dupuis Tarwater in Theatre Orangeville's production of Outlaw. 2004.
Who: Outlaw Where: Theatre Orangeville Day: Through March 14 Time: 8 p.m. (also 2 p.m. Sundays) Cost: $25, ($15 students) Phone: 1-800-424-1295