Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 19. 3rd August 1972
Hayseed for the City Slickers — Wind in the Branches of the Sassafras
Hayseed for the City Slickers
Wind in the Branches of the Sassafras
Rene de Obaldia's Wind in the Branches of the Sassafras was a curious successor to Harold Pinter's new play Old Times, at Downstage last week. It was quite different in conception, a mock-western formed as though Mack Sennett had cut loose on Zane Grey. It was entertainment rather than enigma and to the degree that it did simply amuse, it invited little of the speculative engagement of the Pinter offering.
The plot is a compendium of cliche - a slapstick exploitation of all the tired motifs which have afflicted Westerns since Tom Mix first learned to shoot straight. In the frontier cabin of John Emery Rockefeller, Patriarch and Sage ("Lord, my house is always open, 'ceptin when it's locked up"), a lonely few withstand the ravages of that Prairie Janus, Lynx-eye/Partridge-eye (both played — maniacally — by Craig Ashley ).There's Pamela Rockefeller, straining against the confines of bodice and log-cabin alike; Doc Butler, numbed by conscience and an 80 proof anaesthetic; Miss Miriam, the saloon-gal with a penchant for rhymed couplets and unreasoned coupling. Their language — and much of the joke is verbal — is as eclectic as the plot. John Rockefeller's folksy metaphors ("He's only playing possum to pull the wool over our eyes, the skunk") are complemented by trendy anachronism ("Don't lose your cool"), and some gloriously purple sequences (I particularly liked the "puissant hooves of a stormy quadruped").
This combination of ludicrously hackneyed themes, delivered in cliche, generated an instant vitality — 'though therein lay its limitations too. Sassafras was for me rather too dependent on instants, moments, but not capable of capturing a sustained interest. Sunny Amey's production seemed to reflect this. The play's highlights — the appearances of Lynx/Partridge Eye, and the confessional soliloquies - were delivered with verve and panache, but between them (and especially from Act II), the gags began to falter, and there were some odd moments of indecision in the production. To a degree, this was inevitable in a play like Sassafras — to exploit cliche comically for two and a half hours is a precarious foundation on which to build a theme. There were many moments when the redeeming comedy sagged, and one was left with the tedious banality only.
Still, if the play's parts were better than the whole, there were some very fine moments. The acting was always proficient, and frequently much much more than this. Janice Finn as Miss Miriam delivered her epic - the Rape of Pancho City — in a polished and exuberant burlesque, and Grant Tilly played the derelict Doc Butler with perfect control and timing. By comparison, Ian Mune was dynamic but a little unremitting as the Patriarch Hayseed; Nonnita Mann, as his wife, was conversely inclined to underplay, so that what I felt should have been hard-line caricature sometimes blurred to pen-and-wash.
But these are perhaps minor cavils. Wind in the Branches of the Sassafras sets out only to be entertaining, and it succeeds at that level. The production is on the whole stylish, using sound and visual gimmickry as extensions of the farce, and the final impression of set and staging is of a coherently conceived and carefully wrought presentation. In all, then, Sassafras repays a visit. It might not vex or provoke you, but it may help to relax your mind.