Ashland 2017: Off the Rails

The advance descriptions of Off the Rails stress three points: the author is Native American, the script loosely adapts Shakespeare’s often-criticized “problem” play, Measure for Measure, and the story’s major concern involves boarding schools that Native American children were forced to attend in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One of these is inaccurate, or at least misleading: as even director Bill Rauch’s notes point out, only one character in the story is a student at one of these schools, and very little of the action even takes place in the boarding-school setting — playwright Randy Reinholz, he says, considered a direct approach to the material “too tragic for any audience to bear”.  (Others have disagreed; the 2011 Portland-based musical Ghosts of Celilo tackled the subject matter head-on, and deserves wider circulation.)

The off-key promotion does Off the Rails a disservice, in that it makes it easy to fault the play — wrongly — for failing to be the show its PR promises.  What Off the Rails actually does — and does very well — is to borrow a difficult Shakespeare plot in the service of presenting a provocative, thoughtfully framed narrative about an equally difficult real-world aspect of American history.

From its opening moments, Reinholz’ story contrasts the popular Wild West of fiction with the harsher, more painful historical frontier.  The denizens of the Stewed Prunes Saloon in Genoa, Nebraska are preparing audition pieces for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but the music-hall atmosphere is promptly tempered by darker matters.   When Genoa’s mayor slips out of town, leaving the head of the nearby Indian boarding school in charge, Captain Angelo uses his new-minted authority to separate and harass a young mixed-race couple who are married by Pawnee standards but not the white man’s. He also yanks title to the Stewed Prunes out from under its Native-blooded mistress and sends armed pursuers after Native children who’ve fled the abusive conditions in the boarding school.

But Barret O’Brien’s portrayal of Angelo isn’t that of a mustache-twirling melodrama villain, nor is Pawnee youth Momaday — the jailed husband marked for hanging, played by Shaun Taylor-Corbett — a Hollywood-issue Indian.  Angelo genuinely believes his strategy of imposing Christian and European cultural identity on Native children will “save” them from their doomed heritage, and Momaday is fully invested both in his past (via exchanges with his grandfather’s spirit, played with wry honesty by Brent Florendo) and his future, represented by his emigrant Irish wife, Caitlin (promising newcomer Truett Felt).

The resonances with Measure for Measure are a good deal more specific than the program notes may suggest; Shakespeare’s plot is preserved virtually beat for beat, with a handful of technical alterations consistent with the Western setting and a separate handful of well-considered changes to certain key narrative points.  But Reinholz’ script is neither pure pastiche nor sharp polemic.  The Native material is pointed yet nuanced; one notable exchange directly addresses Buffalo Bill’s mixed historical reputation yet avoids endorsing a particular viewpoint.  And the show’s final moments take an unusual, explicitly inclusive turn that is better experienced than described.

Ultimately, what’s both ironic and important about Off the Rails is that it doesn’t actually jump its narrative tracks.  The story Reinholz offers is ultimately driven by its characters rather than its politics, and it’s a story both well-told and well worth the telling.