History is written by the winners, they say. Memoir is even more selective, having generally been preserved by people who are not just literate, but literate in a language the victors understand (which weeds out quite a few), and often by those who think interesting things have happened to them (with some wonderful and instructive exceptions).
In Lori Vander Maten's script for Desert Foothills Theater's In the Devil's Frying Pan, one of several official Arizona Centennial theatrical events, these vicissitudes make for a first act that leaves the odd impression that Arizona's territorial history consisted almost entirely of violent encounters between white settlers and native Apaches (the latter of whom are depicted as sympathetically as possible, considering the accounts being shared).
The Apache Wars were a significant period in the history of both sides, but an overview that focuses mainly on armed conflict has to be leaving out a lot of other stuff.
Vander Maten consulted a respectable list of works while preparing the play (there's a way cool bibliography in the program), and she admitted, in a pre-show talk that we arrived in the middle of, that the script started out much longer and that the company is still subtracting and restoring scenes based on what they learn from the performances.
Vander Maten's enthusiastic, ego-free approach to playwriting (more of which I overheard at intermission, when she had the expectation of privacy, so I won't quote her verbatim) is one of the things that makes this three-hour saga as bearable as it is.
You can sort of tell from the choppy nature of the storyline (which is episodic by nature, but also lacks thematic cohesion and dynamic structure) that she didn't want to put words in any historic person's mouth, but she's also not trying to impress anyone with her knowledge or craft.
The cast of approximately a bajillion is also earnest and good-natured, and they seem to be uniformly talented and energetic, as well. Though they only get together to sing a large musical number about three times, they sound great.
DFT's space-in-progress at Stagecoach Village in Cave Creek is basically a big empty wooden barn at the moment, and acoustics aren't a problem most of the time.
Except for a couple of traditional tunes, the songs have pedestrian music by Kevin Glenn and awkward, dull lyrics by Vander Maten. They echo what happened immediately before or after and seem to have been inserted where convenient. One of Frying Pan's most memorable moments features a character with tuberculosis, wearing a white satin corset over her shirtwaist, singing a solo while her children play with a live lizard onstage. I don't intend any condescension when I say that will stay with me for a long time.
The recorded soundtrack for the songs often runs under interpolated dialogue, which creates frequent and unfortunate dead spots while the person who has the next lyric (and everyone else, cast and audience alike) waits for the music to catch up after the last line has been delivered. The lighting is terrible, which is understandable in an unfinished and probably underfunded venue. A projector is aimed at the upstage center wall, and when it isn't showing monochrome photos that rarely contribute much to the production, it's sometimes left on as a big white rectangle, which is hideous but does make some of the action easier to see.
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Most of Vander Maten's costumes are detailed, pleasing, and practical. They have to serve actors who play several characters over several decades, and they reinforce a sense of authenticity that surrounds the production. I learned a lot of history during the play -- I just wasn't particularly entertained. Also, a lady in a saloon-girl outfit circulated throughout the aisles, taking photos of the performance with a noisy camera, at one point crouching on the floor and steadying herself on my seat, which I was occupying at the time. But she's probably finished by now.
In the Devil's Frying Pan continues through Sunday, February 19, at Stagecoach Village, 7100 E. Cave Creek Road in Cave Creek. The space can be chilly during evening performances (independent of the town's inherently cooler temps than those further south in the Valley), so dress accordingly. For tickets, $15-$30, call 480-488-1981 or click here.