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The stakes are higher and the situation more dire in Williamston Theatre’s world premiere of Joseph Zettelmaier’s “Dead Man’s Shoes.” By placing his character’s lives at risk, the renowned Michigan playwright creates real suspense with his latest work. At its heart, “Dead Man’s Shoes” is a comical examination of unlikely friendships and coincidental meetings. But impending deaths force moral choices that enrich Zettelmaier’s story in dark and entertaining ways.
Set in the post-Civil War western United States, “Dead Man’s Shoes” tells a familiar tale of a quest for vengeance. Drew Parker plays the notorious outlaw “Injun” — pronounced “engine” — Bill Picote, a man on a mission to settle scores after the gruesome killing of a friend. After escaping jail with the help of the hapless Froggy (Aral Gribble), Bill sharpens his knifes and sets off through a brutal and dusty landscape, only to find that a different fate awaits him.
Along the way, Bill and Froggy encounter a number of characters (played by Paul Hopper and Maggie Meyer), including forgotten kin and a psychotic villain known as the Pale Rider.
Parker’s performance pays tribute to all the Western anti-heroes that have gone before him. With a dark trimmed beard and a steely gaze, Parker conjures all of the most bad-ass qualities of Clint Eastwood’s early characters with his efficient use of words and his imposing stature. He’s even accompanied by his own ballad — sung by Hopper and Meyer — complete with descriptions like, “He ate coal and crapped fire.” Although Bill supposedly killed countless people and uses a knife because he likes the challenge of close combat, he follows a personal code of justice that forbids indiscriminant slaughter.
Following Bill like a lost puppy, Froggy provides a steady stream of comic relief, with running jokes about obesity and understated reactions to tense moments. Zettelmaier has said the part was written with Gribble in mind; the actor always manages to make his characters feel fresh and authentic. His precise comic timing and expressive gestures make him the perfect goofball to Parker’s straight man. Best of all, Gribble’s characters always ellicit audience empathy, even at their most juvenile.
Filling in as a host of characters are Hopper and Meyer, who portray everything from musical narrators strumming guitars to bloodied nuns and carnage-craving zealots, Hopper and Meyer imbue each role with distinct traits that color in Zettelmaier’s world. Arguably the most memorable of these is Hopper’s spine-tingling portrayal of the Pale Rider. Although he saunters in with a hearty laugh, Hopper’s thunderous growl accompanies the Pale Rider’s hauntingly righteous manifesto, providing his villain with creepy charisma.
Visiting director David Wolber strikes the perfect balance of suspense and humor, reintroducing classic thriller elements as soon as you’ve let down your guard. Technical elements, from scenic designer Kirk Domer’s stunning black-and-white panorama backdrop to Will Myer’s perfectly integrated sound design, allow the show to fill the space through audience imagination, instead of via cumbersome set pieces.
“Dead Man’s Shoes” utilizes the saltiest language yet for a Williamston show. Never mind the 1883 date stamp: “Injun” Bill is an outlaw who tosses around the f-word as liberally as he pleases. Regardless, “Dead Man’s Shoes” might be Zettelmaier’s strongest script yet, sharply witty and gripping where it counts. Executed by a top-notch cast under precise direction, “Dead Man’s Shoes” stabs you in the sweet spot.
‘Dead Man's Shoes’
123 S. Putnam Road, Williamston
Through Feb. 26
8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
$20 Thursdays, $25 Friday and Saturday evenings, $22 matinees ($2 off for seniors); $10 students