If ever there was a time in the American “Wild West” when multiple personality disorder was rampant, it was from 1870 to 1900. It was a time of widespread storytelling, with the stories often being larger-than-life “tall tales.” They were spread through the medium of the “dime novel,” small magazines, sometimes mere pamphlets, that extolled the exploits of all types of people, good and bad, such as “Wild Bill” Hickok and John Wesley Hardin. It was a time of migration, settlement, social disruption, violence, adventure, and simple and extravagant entertainment. In short, it was a time of social chaos that often resulted in calamity. Within this environment, at 22, Martha Jane Cannary became “Calamity Jane.”
Untitled Calamity Jane Play by Kati Frazier is a memory play attempting to make sense of all the different versions of the iconic woman, Calamity Jane. As directed by Akia Squitieri, the play is well-told from the perspective of different versions of Martha Jane Cannary. It leaves the viewer with an idea of who this person is without establishing a clear identity. It also shows that it is not so important to know the truth of her life as much as to revel in the wonder of it.
The play begins in a saloon of the old west with a full bar at one side and tables with chairs stacked on them, filling half the stage. A chalkboard on one of the walls announces a storytelling performance by Calamity Jane. Five men enter and begin to take the chairs off the tables as one of them goes to the blackboard, erases what is there, and writes the name of the group that has entered the saloon, “The Society of Black Hills Pioneers.” This blackboard becomes a device used during the show to announce significant changes, almost like chapter headings in a book.
The men are there to discuss how to go about burying Calamity Jane, and after a few comments about the task, they begin to discuss who this person was in her life. The conversation breaks down into a cacophonous hubbub, with everyone talking simultaneously, each with a different view. And then it stops, and one of them says, “We can’t bury a lady in a Buckskin suit.”
At that moment, Calamity Jane walks into the bar and says, “Whiskey!” The men disappear, and the owner of the bar Madame Moustache appears. Maya Jasmin Kurokouchi is Calamity Jane. She perfectly inhabits the character with all the swaggering braggadocio of the story-teller Calamity and reveals the sensitivity of an emotionally conflicted woman. Josephine Pizzino is outstanding as Madame Mustache, the narrator of the saga and guiding angel to Calamity Jane. She is the conductor that maintains a line of reality amid the chaos of Calamity’s life. We discover from them that they are ghosts beginning a discussion of how it all came to be.
Another important character at the core of the story is Jane. She is a younger version of the buckskin-wearing woman we first encounter. She acts as both counterpoint and balance to all the various stories being spun out to uncover the truth of Calamity Jane’s life. Ayesha Saleh, as Little Jane, is a perfect fit for this vital role. She expertly inhabits the younger Jane allowing for the seamless integration of the various storylines.
The show takes us through the many different and chaotic versions of Calamity Jane that have been told over the years. Was she married to Wild Bill Hickok? Was she an army scout for General Custer? Was she a whore? All the angles are explored in this entertaining, somewhat chaotic play, a fair representation of the life lived by Calamity Jane.
The supporting cast is large and skillful in their many different roles. Giordano Cruz, Luis Feliciano, Michael Hagins, Laura Lamberti, Bryant L. Lewis, Jackie McKenna, and Michael Pichardo effectively transition from character to character in the constantly shifting landscape of the multiple scenes depicting different time periods in Calamity Jane’s life.
Munirah Morris & Tiffini Minatel-Schrieber have created costumes that were appropriate to the characters and time frames depicted. The lighting design by Jess Clapper is adequate, but some scenes are unevenly lit. To be fair, the lighting equipment in the venue may have contributed to the issues. Miriam Eusebio and Laine Diep have done an excellent job with what they had to work with in set design and properties, respectively . However, more could have been done with the set’s large back wall projection screen. In addition, some of the props were not as carefully managed, such as the guns and holsters or the whiskey bottles. However, none of the staging issues were severe enough to impact the show’s enjoyment.
Untitled Calamity Jane Play (through February 26, 2023)
Rising Sun Performance Company with The 14Y Theater
Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-780-0800 or visit http://www.ci.ovationtix.com/36649
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission