In the introduction to THE MORMON KID — playing through November 12th at the USU Eastern Black Box in Price — the outlaw of Matt Warner tells the audience, “There’s lies, damn lies, and history.” It’s a spin on the aphorism popularized by Mark Twain, which is usually rendered as, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
It’s a (delightfully) devilish preface to the play written and performed by Morgan Lund for the OtherSide Players. While the piece is historical, documentary isn’t the point. Rather, the point lies somewhere between salty but kindly polemic and cowboy fireside storytelling. And it’s much more of the latter.
I’ve personally attempted the one-person show one and a half times. And only as a playwright. Having tried my hand at this, though — and seen what works and what doesn’t — I can say that Morgan Lund succeeds. Especially when it comes to weaving in the large cast of characters. Lund as Warner transforms wholly into other personalities in the story, adding costumes and walking behind a pseudo-wardrobe to emerge with a new walk, a new way of holding himself, and a new accent. A joy of the show is anticipating who he will become next as he tugs off his handkerchief.
I saw a proto-version of THE MORMON KID at the Great Salt Lake Fringe last August, where it was also (inventively) directed by Xan Johnson and featured a cellist with melodies reminding me of Ken Burn’s THE CIVIL WAR. The Fringe version run-time was maybe 60 minutes, but this expanded version has two acts, making an evening of theatre that’s a fast 1 hour 45 minutes including intermission. Where the Fringe version was framed largely around Matt Warner’s discovery that he didn’t commit the crime he thought he had, this full version spends extra time drawing parallels between the robber barons of the 19th-century and the economic mess we’re in now, some forty years on from the Reagan administration’s decision to all but stop the enforcement of anti-trust laws.
The sci-fi writer and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow is currently making more sense than many about why our economy has returned to 19-century levels of inequality and regulatory capture. Reflecting on the political echoes that Lund sees between the early colonial days of the Southwest and now, it’s hard for me to not think of Doctorow. But Lund is thinking broadly. He’s invoking the archetype of the rebel, which we Americans are peculiarly vulnerable to. We love the outlaw. Somewhere in the show, Lund jokes about the distinction between criminal and outlaw, saying that outlaws are criminals with a following. When you see past and present through that lens, it’s hard not to see parallels with a certain conservative politician running for president. Or other figures in the news. Today on Mastodon, I saw a post from a web developer who overheard at a conference about Sam Bankman-Fried, “He didn’t really do anything too horrible.” (Just steal $10 billion from customers and investors.)
So Lund is toying with us, in part, understanding our weakness for criminals with a following. We’re primed for these stories. Probably in part because they distract from the non-glamorous criminality that is inextricably tied up in American Western history and doesn’t entail bank robberies and flights across the desert on horseback (but rather, massacring soldiers and white squatters). Because of our weakness for cursing, spitting, free-ranging, and nature-loving outlaws, we’ll listen to the odd dig against today’s politicians and their missteps.
The new second act, written in the last three months, is mostly about a bank robbery and a flight on horseback, but the ending defies the tidiness of well-made plays and hints that the tale could go on and on. We’re left to contemplate what sort of country we’ve had and do have. In the narration, Lund as a writer makes no apology for the racist and sexist prejudices of Warner, but tried to copy these faithfully from source material (LAST OF THE BANDIT RIDERS). Lund as an actor is ceaselessly charming and that’s what makes the occasional impolitic phrase (such as “off the reservation”) remind you that you’re listening to someone who’s devoted much of their life to crime, and should not, perhaps, be taken as an authority. It’s possible that if Lund expunged the script of those sorts of phrases then we’d become too charmed with Matt Warner, forgetting the most important fact about him: he was a Black Hat. A thoroughly American Black Hat.
But I’m glad to have made the trip from Salt Lake City to Price, where Warner is buried in the city cemetery. Between the grin-inducing bodily transformations of Morgan Lund, the cello accompanying him (John Serfustini), and the perfectly spare set of leather bridles and spittoons, THE MORMON KID sets a high bar for original work in Utah.
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