‘Captain Buffalo’ loses power to unnecessary complexity
Sometimes the closer you are to a story, the harder it is to tell. It is easy to take shortcuts and make those knowing winks that can leave an audience feeling as though they are eavesdropping on a story that is not for them.
Detroit Theatre Ensemble’s “Captain Buffalo,” which is making its stage premiere at the Michigan Actors Studio, straddles two worlds and expects its audiences to be intimate with both of them. Ryan, also known as “Hoss,” is a SWAT team hall boss and has decided to learn to become an actor. It is a choice his brother and SWAT team commander, Bones, scorns and attempts to block.
As a study in contrasts, Patrick Moug’s story works well. The SWAT team is as close as a family and filled with macho testosterone and drunken physicality. Even the woman’s moves are that of a jock and an athlete. Then the scenes switch and the personalities, moves and behavior of the actors become the opposite: flighty, chatty, emotional.
It is this contrast that director Barton Bund handles well, and most effectively in the scene where Ryan attends his first acting workshop and is trying to observe and fit into this strange environment he has found. As the actor’s perform Meisner exercises and physical warm-ups, Phil Hughes’ Ryan circles and watches, fascinated but finding it as strange as the audience does.
Bund also creates bookends with similar actions at the start and end of the play, creating a complete circle with visual techniques in a play that is otherwise more cinematic than theatrical. It is a delicate balance that is effective in keeping the scenes from being drowned in the winks about the venue, the inside world of acting, and the close-knit culture of police officers.
Playwright Moog also performs as the antagonistic brother, the one whose homophobia stems from the loss of a fellow officer and lifelong friend whom he feels he should have stopped from being gay. Together Moog and Hughes portray disconnected brothers who love each other despite their differences. Hughes is uncertain and vulnerable, while Moog is blustering and overly confident despite his fears.
The acting surrounding them varied in strength. Despite the intimate space of the Michigan Actors Studio, the acoustics often made it difficult to hear the actors, their voices too often sinking into the floor rather than carrying out to the seats. This was especially true in intimate scenes, or such times as when Ryan’s first acting teacher, Glory, discouraged him from participating. Her lines were clipped and she seemed uncertain of what she was saying, lacking in the arrogance that the lines of the script seemed to imbue her with.
In contrast, Kristen Wagner-Nader’s Kate was filled with personality and a bubbly charisma that sparkled whenever she was on the stage, making the storyline flow better, and providing Ryan with needed motivation.
As the playwright, Moog was guilty of telling rather than showing in this play. We are told many times that Ryan is a good actor, but there is only one scene where we see it, and even then the others on the stage over-react to us, telling us how we should perceive it, lest we miss that it is supposed to be good. To be effective in the story that it tells, we need to see Ryan’s growth, not simply be told about it.
“Captain Buffalo” tries to tell many stories: that of loss, homophobia, chasing one’s dreams, finding one’s place in the world, friendship, family and love. But in the two hours that it has on stage, those are too many stories to tell, and none of them are given the power or focus to make it truly compelling. They crowd each other out and compete rather than work in harmony. Instead, the audience is invited to a buffet of foods prepared to standard, but little that is outstanding or memorable.