Philip D. Henry as Jack Fowler.
Photo courtesy Six Elements Theatre
There's a certain amount of irony to the title of John Heimbuch's The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. While we see those lives unfold in front of us, the very first scene shows the trio on the gallows, about to meet their ultimate fate. What follows isn't just about their adventures, but what brought them to such an unseemly end.
The show, presented in a solid production by relative newcomers Six Elements Theatre (perhaps best known for Human Combat Chess), takes us back nearly three centuries to a London on the cusp of a stock-influenced economic meltdown, packed with corrupt law enforcement, and troubled by highwaymen at every crossroads.
The plot is engineered by Jack Fowler (Philip D. Henry), an experienced thief who has kept his neck out of the noose by turning in a friend, but ends up in prison. His corrupt contact, Jonathan Wild, offers him a new deal: find someone new for the gallows -- for a profit.
Fowler does this, eventually roping in a pair of 18th-century Walter Whites: William (Philip C. Matthews) and Elizabeth (Meredith Larson). Both have their own motivations. William is a romance writer who becomes a highwayman mainly by accident while Elizabeth -- disguised as a man, naturally -- is looking for excitement and revenge.
They find a measure of freedom in their actions, breaking out of their assigned roles on the mercantile streets of London. The victims are mainly unseen, except for Samuel Heath (Alex Cotant), whose life is intertwined with William and Elizabeth, and whose inevitable downfall is written in the play's early moments.
Since we know their fate, the moment-to-moment thrills and pleasures carry the characters. Jack has long learned to live in this state, enjoying every moment because he knows it truly could be his last. The others can't shake their desire to plan and look ahead for an escape, which eventually becomes their undoing.
The company does good work, especially Henry, Larson, and Matthews as our robbers. There's a real pleasure that is palpable in their misdeeds, and the changes to their characters -- even in the few months of their reign -- are noticeable. Cotant as Samuel has the toughest time. He's portraying a character who is sure on the surface yet wracked by doubt and fear underneath, but it just comes off as bumbling and lost. He's too much the patsy to even generate much sympathy for his unjust end. Alexander as Wild and James Tucker as his nasty right-hand-man Quilt make for good baddies. There's no self doubt here, just a desire for money and power.
Jenna Papke's direction is sure handed, though the piece lacks in pace, with scene transitions lumbering along when they should snap. That's not helped by a rolling platform that is moved from scene to scene to represent different locations. It's a good idea, but the rumbling noise and between-scene pauses drag down the energy when it should be building.
Still, The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen is worth the trip, if just for the thrill of watching the crime and working out how, in the end, it will not pay for our brigands.
IF YOU GO:
The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen
Through November 3
2400 University Ave., St. Paul