In its notorious history, the Garden Theater has seen more than its share of raunchiness, but never with such poetry and spirit as Quantum Theatre's re-imagining of the mythology of the American West, as captured by Michael Ondaatje in his book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.
But "captured" isn't quite the word. In real life, the legendary outlaw escaped jail several times, and historians have failed to capture much in the way of facts about his early life. Since his death by Pat Garrett's bullet, in 1881, William Bonney -- or Henry McCarty, or whatever his real name was -- has flown into the pantheon of quintessentially American characters whose stories have been stretched far beyond what any facts can bear.
This malleability is well exploited by Quantum's company of three men, two women and one dummy (no joke), who portray different aspects of the Kid's persona in a series of vignettes drawn from the poetry and prose of the 1970 book by the Sri Lankan-born Canadian poet. Ondaatje, best known for his novel The English Patient, works his way into the mind and the mythos of the Kid and his cronies in stark language that is by turns brutal and beautiful. Director Dan Jemmett and the actors took that language, and -- working through improvisation over several weeks -- "devised" this theater piece with much music, dancing and humor, not to mention a lot of booze (both real and theatrical) and blood.
It's a remarkable undertaking. Billy the Kid is not a play in the narrative sense, but more of a multimedia experience: a brisk country dance here, a stagey sounds-effects-filled melodrama there, an absolutely hilarious and improbable cross-cast rescue scene, and evocations of the poignancy of a wasted life. The cast is amazing, for stamina as well as versatility: Andrew Hachey for the youth and supposed charm of the Kid; John Fitzgerald Jay for the macho anti-hero; Rick Kemp for sagacity and the antics of the dummy; the musical Mikelle Johnson striking an androgynous note; and Kristin Slaysman, as marvelous as Billy at the rescue as she is elsewhere as a vamp.
The Garden, meanwhile, offers a milieu that is, well, repugnant yet fascinating. The former "adult" theater is the temporary home of a challenging theatrical tale for grown-ups.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid continues through July 1. The Garden Theater, 12 W. North Ave., North Side. 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org