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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Enemy Miners: Michael Craig Storm's Curtin (left) draws a bead on Randall King's Fred C. Dobbs.

Greed Breed

The lure of gold turns men into murderers in SJ Stage Co.'s 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre'

By Marianne Messina

EVEN WITHOUT the horses, burros, train robbery and expansive landscape of the film version, San Jose Stage Company's current production of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre displays all the true grit of a classic Western. In creating the struggles of three determined gold prospectors, the production choreographs some robust mano a mano moments, with punches neatly synchronized to their audio effects. The lively six-shooter action, especially when gold prospector Fred C. Dobbs (Randy King) shoots his mine-side buddy Curtin (Michael Craig Storm), outdoes the famed 1948 film version of B. Traven's novel. Guns fire flamelike bursts with shots loud enough to make people jump in their seats--not to mention that King's Dobbs fires one shot more into Curtin than Humphrey Bogart did as the original Dobbs.

The story casts Mother Nature as a ubiquitous trickster figure. And thanks to Brooks White's clever sound work (crickets and so forth), the play makes you more aware of "Madre" Nature's strong presence than the film that went broke to shoot on location. At key junctures in the play, the action holds its breath, and we hear the fateful crows (only mentioned in the film as a kind of irritant), their call laced with a slight echo that lets you imagine the ominous caw reverberating off the Sierras.

In terms of acting, no one will miss the movie. Wes Finlay, as Howard the prospector who's seen it all, is more settled in his wisdom and possibly more lovable than the hyperloquacious Walter Huston. And as the Gold Hat bandit, Luis Saguar presents such a smooth blend of disjunct qualities--campy stereotype to ruthlessness--he's riveting. Playwright Herb Robins infuses the script with a good bit of irony. That and King's rendering of a morally oblivious Dobbs, sprinkled with swagger, add swatches of humor that on opening night had Robins, who was in the audience, chuckling, and the rest of the audience laughing out loud.

But by the time Dobbs has his World War I flashback (after shooting Curtin), this humor and the fragmented accounting of Dobbs' decline have pingponged your sympathies into a state of confusion. In the film, Dobbs dismisses his conscience: "If you believe you got a conscience, it'll pester you to death." Robins' Dobbs turns the word "conscience" into a question and wonders, Does the president have a conscience when he sends boys off to the massacres of war? But somehow the connection between shooting a mining buddy in a paranoid rage and witnessing the death of a wartime trench mate feels strained, more like a political aside than something driven by the characters.

The way the dialogue underscores words like "greed" and "conscience" and the way the plot plows through classic paranoia, murder and war politics, one is tempted to expect the density of a Russian novel. That would be a mistake. Better to expect a large, loud spaghetti Western with a thoughtful touch of class, then sit back and enjoy.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through May 9 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $20-$42. (408.283.7142)

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From the April 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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