Guts and glory

Watching Dallas Theater Center's gutsy (and I mean that literally, but more later) production of Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, I couldn't help but wonder why American playwrights haven't plundered the 19th-century American frontier for the kind of blood-red gems Ondaatje has uncovered. As directed with absurdist aplomb and psychotic brushstrokes by DTC's artistic director Richard Hamburger, Billy the Kid proves that the American West has been stretched so far by storytellers worldwide, it ironically finds an especially appropriate home in the theater, where a small stage skillfully used can cover the untold psychological acreage of a nation's folklore.

What theatergoers have gotten this century ranges from the sentimental (Oklahoma, Paint Your Wagon) to the smart-assed (Sam Shepard's True West and Cowboy Mouth). It's never wise to look to musicals for historical revelation, but you'd think such a cranky American visionary as Shepard would put his misanthropy to the service of something besides reductionism. For as chillingly effective a dissection of machismo as True West was, it filtered 19th-century frontier outlaws through the scrim of a screenplay, which in turn diffused it into a kaleidoscope of fraternal emotions. As a playwright, Shepard forsook the glass-tinkling rhythms of poetry for the plangency of psychodrama.

No matter. If other playwrights have dropped the ball, Michael Ondaatje has gathered them all up and executed a nifty juggling act of moods with his tragicomedy The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. The joke is, he ain't an American (he's a Canadian of Dutch-Ceylon heritage) and really not a playwright either. The Dallas Theater Center production is based on one of several stage adaptations by Ondaatje of his 1970 novel of the same name, a basic story that comprises most of his handful of theatrical excursions. Last year, Ondaatje became a (much-mispronounced) household name for the hugely successful film adaptation of his novel The English Patient.

For literary purists, it's hard not to use that exquisitely photographed but narratively jejune bit of Oscar bait to remind us how the written word, at least as practiced by a fine craftsman like Ondaatje, fetches more in the marketplace of feeling than a million Academy Awards melted into ore. If theater, in turn, is simply literature that won't shut up until it, rather than you, decides that it should, then it's no surprise that the stage is a much more hospitable climate for this writer's truly remarkable verbal union of physical detail and psychological process.

DTC's Richard Hamburger has mounted The Collected Works of Billy the Kid for North Texas audiences after a seismic chart of production activity that ranged from an early peak in the mid-'70s to a 1990 revival, all of them in Ondaatje's adopted Canadian homeland. Hamburger's production approaches a nightmare in its absolute refusal to digest for audiences the horror, hilarity, desperation, and tenderness that it serves in alternating rounds. There is furious chaos in this show, most notably in the deliberate jumble of events and relationships in the life of Henry McCarty aka William Bonney aka Kid Antrium aka Billy the Kid (1859-1881), but it's propulsive, the stuff of dream logic, and uniquely combined into a weirdly sensual gutkick by the triple threat of Michael Yeargan's set design, Howell Binkley's lighting, and Curtis Craig's sound.

Billy the Kid (Jesse Sinclair Lenat) was 21 years old when he was gunned down by arch-rival Pat Garrett (Rocco Sisto) during a less-than-fair-fight: Billy, alone in the dark, just had a butcher knife. What the playwright chronicles here is a kind of free-association distillation of some of the Kid's drunken encounters with others, including Fort Sumner buddies Tom O'Folliard (Billy Eugene Jones) and Charlie Bowdre (Sean Arbuckle). He also has a fling with a prostitute named Angela Dickinson (Lorca Simons), a flirtation with the animal-loving Sallie Chisum (Sally Nystuen Vahle), and a brief association with her rich rancher brother John Chisum (Richard Ziman). Those who knew Billy and were lucky enough to escape violent death still brushed up against his violent temper, and--if you believe the legends--his aw-shucks charm.

Also charming and violent, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid has nearly as much gore as a Clive Barker tale. But just as Baudelaire found beauty in the sight of a rotting, fly-ridden animal carcass on the side of the road, Ondaatje, Hamburger, and company illuminate some of the most truly disturbing monologues I've ever heard with a lyrical deftness that disgusts and flirts with you at the same time. The accolade for most haunting riff is a tie between Richard Ziman as cattle fat-cat John Chisum, who tells (to a basset hound) the story of a man who deliberately cross-breeds dogs into blind, deformed, ravenous creatures who finally devour him, leaving only one hand gripping a whip; or Jesse Sinclair Lenat as Billy the Kid, strapped to a giant wheel and remembering his journey toward execution as a particularly visceral violation by Pat Garrett, who reaches down his throat past "the pyramid of bones" and pulls his genitals back up out of his mouth. You are riveted by these long, florid, scorchingly delivered accounts in a way Scorsese, Peckinpah, or DePalma couldn't hope to match.

Although very loose in structure and sometimes flippant in its depiction of extreme brutality, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid never suffers from self-indulgent theatricality. There's no slack to be taken up here, because every shock is more than earned. The combination of Hamburger's storm-soaked vision and Ondaatje's indescribable language keep this particular Old West biography centered in a subconscious saloon where affection and cruelty, beauty and horror dance the night away like a 10-dollar whore and a drunken trick. You aren't likely to see a more intensely poetic vision of the American West, stripped of all sentimentality yet hauntingly romantic, anytime soon.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid runs through November 16. Call 522-

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Jimmy Fowler