The 21st installment of the Rainbow Company Youth Theatre’s Nevada Series, “Spinning Nevada’s Past,” fittingly premiered at the Historic Fifth Street School. This time, the play is part of our state’s sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of statehood.
Playwrights and co-directors Karen McKenney and Brian Kral have introduced a piece of Nevada history that may raise an eyebrow or two, but it’s quite the ingenious hook. Audience members spin a gaming Wheel of Chance to decide which four (of eight) vignettes will be presented. The wheel, on loan from the Nevada State Museum, and a giant map of the state with counties painted in bright colors are the focal points of Kris Van Riper’s simple set, built for touring purposes.
The play begins with Sean Critchfeld as a sort of carnival barker inviting us to “step right up and gather ’round,” for a song, with music and lyrics composed by cast member Kearston Kuroishi, and we’re introduced to the remaining players, Martha Watson, Cory Covell and Michael Connolly.
The five actors portray a cavalcade of characters in multiple scenes so it’s easy to forgive some missed cues and forgotten lines. Considering they don’t know until the last minute which sketch they’ll be performing, the cast does quite a credible job.
But, the gimmick of the play is also its downfall. It’s supposed to work like this: Critchfield pulls a county name from an old saddlebag, an audience member holding the corresponding ticket comes to the stage and spins the wheel to determine which story out of Nevada’s past we’ll see. It’s an enjoyable way to teach history, but Kral and McKenney might want to rethink the execution because the stories on the wheel aren’t relevant to the particular county.
For instance the spin for White Pine County lands on “Nom de Plume.” You’d expect the skit to be about Mark Twain and you’d be right, but he spent his time in Virginia City, which is in Storey County.
Next we got Esmeralda County and “Flights of Fancy” about Florence Murphy from Fernley (Lyon County), the first licensed female pilot in Nevada, and the building of Sky Harbor Airport — in Clark County.
“King of Comstock” for Eureka County again took us to Virginia City for a lesson in the dubious, though legal, economics of one Mr. Shearing of the Bank of California.
Critchfield is fast on his feet with the improvisation required for interaction with audience members. His quick wit for Clark County and a story of the “Wandering Burro” (about Tonopah in Nye County) became the highlight of the evening when he helped a very young boy properly identify the county on the map and clarified “burrow” from “burro.”
The script has another flaw. In “King of Comstock” we get a parade of customers taking out loans and returning to hand over deeds. In “Nom de Plume” a young Samuel Clemens (Covell) runs in and out of the newspaper office with stories but no idea for a pen name.
The play will go on a tour of schools for presentation to more than 14,000 students in the area, and the playwrights should have more faith in them to “get it” long before the tedious repetition is over.