Cowboys, Zombies and Outlaws, Oh My!: 'Hell Followed With Her' at WildClaw Theatre
In our woes of political turbulence, horror in entertainment has become an unexpected ally as means of escapism. To be relieved of national pressures and instead take on the turmoil of others in different extreme, fictional circumstances provides a refreshing sense of relief for a couple hours (especially with little to no consequences). While not being a huge fan of horror, there's no denying its value in emerging as a vital, crucial release for catharsis and dark comedy.
WildClaw Theatre's Hell Followed With Her is a prime example of providing this resource, and goes one step further in amplifying this sensation onstage rather than on screen. By premise alone, I can‘t recall dealing with westerns, the supernatural and songs all in one play. This fascinating world premiere comes from Bill Daniel with direction by artistic director, Josh Zagoren. A mix of popular storytelling subjects in cowboys and zombies is a risky move, but has a surprising, sentimental pay off.
Two acts are dedicated to the mysterious happenings within an 1870s’ Texas saloon and the looming, inevitable answers that surround them on all sides. There's no escaping death and more importantly the truth in this town. It's clear from the start that this large ensemble will shrink over the course of the next two hours in order to sustain a compelling plot. Act I takes its sweet time laying down exposition and establishing characters' relationships that peak slight interest. In a lot of sittin' and talkin', its general passivity feels weary, and it isn't until Act II that this story feels worth sitting up in your seat for.
Time is able to accelerate through resourceful design. Claire Yearman's fight choreography packs a punch with one sequence in particular that's so speedy it forces you to do a head count of who's still with us. Rachel Watson's saloon doors (and later the bathroom door) offer a great device for tension, never knowing who could walk in next as friend or foe. It’s also a fun touch that you get to enter and exit the space through them yourself. Music by Garrett Beelow and "Willow's Song" featuring lyrics by Daniel and music by Diego Colón, provide just enough haunting accompaniment without stunting the story's progress.
Similar to its act structure, it takes time for the actors' performances to deepen. Willow (Sophia Rosado) begins as a songbird turned silent outsider with a glazed, unbroken stance jumping into the fray when needed. Like Willow, Cole (Ardarius Blakely) springs into action after being spoken about as if he hasn't been deliberately waiting in the shadows the entire time. How their paths merge is highly rewarding from the way their backstory connects with their present, separate missions and climaxes in a game of bluffing. While a potential romantic past is teased, their chemistry isn't necessarily steamy, but enjoyable as a gruff, respectable kinship.
Willow and Cole form a solid partnership in taking down Glanton (George Zerante), who from his braggart entrance is as detestable as they come. Each time he references Willow, he insistently refers to her as "the girl" or "little lady" highlighting a misogyny despite being in the same field of crookery. Glanton plays his cruelty well and becomes increasingly frustrating when despite being in an apocalyptic dilemma, he still has his masculine, prideful ax to grind in achieving his accomplishment of killing Cole. His grotesqueness proves fruitful in planting suspicion among the group in Willow and Cole's motivations and that they might not be the underdog heroes they've been made out to be.
Despite the main conflict centering on this frictional triangle, supporting characters offer memorable moments. Lovable Irish (Savanna Rae) just wants to start a band and his lifelong wish turns into a dream unfulfilled. Jonah (Ashley Yates) goes from sacrificial lamb to underestimated aide. Shelby (Nora King) is able to bring laugh out loud moments to her one note characterization as a blind woman.
The action of Hell Followed With Her picks up once the bodies start piling up. Act II beautifully functions as a boiling pot waiting to explode whereas the first act rests at a tepid volume. There's plenty of exciting stand offs, blood bursts and subtle touches that ground these unrealistic circumstances. Counting out the remaining bullets in guns and determining how someone becomes zombie infected allows us to more easily invest in this story's validity. Despite its violent nature, it doesn't border on excessive and instead is more keen on exploring the ethics of justice and heroism when humanity is on the verge of extinction.