‘The Golden Spike’ at Baltimore Annex Theater by Amanda Gunther

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FOUR STARS
What is a scar but evidence of the triumph over death? And no man setting out to build a continental railroad could escape such grand designs unscarred. Baltimore Annex Theater presents a new theatrical work, The Golden Spike, a look at legend and history blended into a production that moves at the speed of a train meant to be carried upon the tracks which are being laid in the story. Written by R. M. O’Brien, and based loosely around the mostly unknown facts of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad (with some elements of the old Babylonian story of Gilgamesh thrown in for good measure) the play itself needs a little work, but the framing effort and acting set forth by Director Mason Ross and the actors in his charge is an impressive, and curious work making for an intriguing, albeit unsettling, evening of new theatre.

Rjyan Kidwell and Douglas Johnson. Photo by Meg Hughes.
Rjyan Kidwell and Douglas Johnson. Photo by Meg Hughes.

Director Mason Ross, serving as the overall visionary designer for the show, crafts a series of old silent picture-style screen captions which introduce each scene to the audience. While the scenes play out more like loosely connected vignettes, Ross’s unique idea of displaying the last line of dialogue in the scene as the opening text to that moment in the play make its intriguing. His sound design helps ground the notion of the play’s reality, set in the mid 1860’s out west post Californian gold rush. The use of the rapid tinkling saloon piano between scenes eases each transition from one to the next. Ross’s initial series of projections— a continuous stream of old western footage in black and white and a deadly rattler in the desert— further enhances the play’s setting.

Playwright R. M. O’Brien pushes too much legend and history into too short of a space for it to feel properly fleshed out and make sense. Everything happens so quickly, often without explanation, making the production feel a bit like a dabble into the world of the avant garde or mixed-media art projects. By the time has flown away in a mere 75 minutes the overall moral of the story seems to be that ambitious people who take drugs in the desert will ultimately die in the desert. O’Brien has characters woven into the story that could just as easily not be there for as much as their story line wraps up by the play’s close; Cora the journalist being a prime example. Her storyline of writing a nasty exposè on Gil Robinson railroad tycoon is underdeveloped and ultimately feels superfluous to the main events of the plot. O’Brien has similar struggles with the trapper character of Jacob, who seems to be crafted into the production for the sole convenience of having a grizzly way to end the play.

Director Mason Ross, despite the convoluted and unfinished feel of the work, manages to craft a quality performance from his cast. There are El Dorado-sounding accents from those meant to be from out west and yonder, and a more austere and polished sound on Cora the reporter from Chicago. There is even a glorious puppet, representing the thunder bird, which makes an appearance later in the show that is manned with precision by multi-character performer Madison Coan.

Jacob (Rjyan Kidwell) is the rather fearsome mountain man who appears unexpectedly and polishes up to a respectable citizen by the time the production mounts toward its conclusion. Kidwell does an exceptional job of making his character both uncouth and unruly, with a booming voice that knows only one volume level: loud. This is a brilliant character choice as his character’s root show him living on the land up in the mountains with the outdoors as the only lifestyle he knows. When he starts wending his superstitious tales in the desert to Gil there is something eerily haunting in his voice; a hint of truth behind these stories as if he actually believes them while trying not to; easily bringing the audience one step closer to buying into the myths.

Madison Coan, Douglas Johnson, and Kate Hardwicke. Photo by Meg Hughes.
Madison Coan, Douglas Johnson, and Kate Hardwicke. Photo by Meg Hughes.

Gil Robinson (Doug Johnson) exists as the story’s protagonist without ever having a reason for the audience to feel compassionate for him, another downside to O’Brien’s overall development of the play. Johnson, despite the unfinished shell of his character, does an exceptional job of making him realistic and keeping him present in the time. There is something about the way Johnson speaks, as if he truly grasps the vernacular and speech patterns of a man from El Dorado back in the 1860’s, sounding similar to a historical documentary; easy in his speech. He is calm and collected at the best of times, though when he has a strenuous eruptive moment on the train with Cora it is the most intense moment in the show and you find yourself startled and fascinated at the same time. Johnson gives a rousing performance, finding little nuances in the character that help the audience stay focused on the story.

The Golden Spike is an interesting amalgamation of fact and fiction, history, and legend. And while the overall script needs polishing, the framing concepts and the acting are what make this production worth seeing.

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.

The Golden Spike plays through March 2, 2014 at Baltimore Annex Theater at Station North Chicken Box— West North Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door, or online.