Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' is an American classic.

The 1948 film, directed and scripted by John Huston, was based on a 1927 novel by B. Traven (a pen name for Berwick Traven Torsvan). The movie starred Humphrey Bogart and Huston's father, Walter; in an uncredited role, it marked the feature film debut of Robert Blake, as a young boy selling lottery tickets.

Nearly 60 years passed after Traven's death, before his estate granted permission for the book to be used again. Actor/writer Herb Robins, who ran a theater company in Sierra Madre for many years, adapted the story for the stage; it debuted at the San Jose Stage Company in 2004.

Now California Stage has brought the work to Sacramento, under the direction of Mike Yazzolino. The story, which follows the lives of three greedy men searching for gold in the mountains of Mexico, has its roots in the Great Depression; it's thus not only an entertaining piece of theater, but an all too timely one at that.

Davis' own Mitch Agruss plays Howard (the Walter Huston role), the grizzled old prospector who lures two indigent former oil workers to join forces with him on a quest into the Sierra Madre mountains, to search for gold. Agruss is an absolute delight as a gold-hunting addict with a firm grasp on the reality of his obsession:

'I never knew a prospector who died rich. Make a fortune, sure to blow it tryin' to find another.'

Tomas F. Maguire is quite strong as Fred C. Dobbs (the Bogart role), the older, avaricious drifter who has partnered with the younger Curtin (Derek Byrne). Maguire persuasively transforms from a money-hungry drifter to a paranoid miner, whose greed drives him to do unconscionable things and ultimately is his undoing.

Byrne gives a solid, though not strong performance as Curtin, a young man transformed by his experiences on the mountain. At moments, Byrne is quite good; at other times, he seems awkward.

Fred Goraieb is deliciously dastardly as 'Gold Hat,' the bandito who utters the movie's most famous line: 'Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges.'

Fortunately, the line comes early in Act 2, bringing the expected titters from an audience who knows it's coming, and can't wait for it to arrive.

Eric Baldwin plays LeCaud, a geologist who follows the trio up the mountain, claiming to know where to find the mother lode. His character doesn't seem to 'fit' into the story. The way this script is written, in short vignettes, LeCaud adds little to the point of the action.

The set design - the program doesn't credit anybody - nicely utilizes the California Stage space, with a large mountain and smaller rocks on which the men sit and recline, and larger spaces filled by tumbleweeds. The backdrop suggests the Mexican desert's bleak landscape.

I wish I knew more about the value of gold dust, because this play's bags (containing small amounts of sand) seem awfully tiny to represent a small fortune. Likewise, much disbelief must be suspended in certain sections of the play, as with an explosion in the offstage mine; it partially buries and nearly kills Dobbs, yet takes only 10 seconds from start to rescue.

Overall, though, this is an excellent production. The performances are good; the sets, costume and lighting are compelling; and the theater even provides lap blankets, for those feeling cold because of the night air that wafts in through the cracks in the old building.

A word of caution, though: If you park along the light rail tracks on R Street, be sure your car clears the tracks! A car on opening night blocked the incoming light rail train, and had to be towed by the police.

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