The Town Hall presents The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved on Friday, May 5th;
Tribute to Gonzo Journalist Hunter S. Thompson and Illustrator Ralph Steadman
Starring Tim Robbins, with Special Guests Brad Hall and Chloe Webb
Music Composed & Conducted by Bill Frisell, Performed by Ron Miles, Curtis Fowlkes,
Kenny Wolleson, Jenny Scheinman, Doug Weiselman, Eyvind Kang and Hank Roberts
Produced by Hall Willner, Directed by Chloe Webb, Artwork by Ralph Steadman, Show Makes East Coast Debut on May 5, the Eve of the 2017 Kentucky Derby
Only a writer as perceptive, talented and insanely fearless as Hunter S. Thompson can turn the coverage of a horse race into an incisive, and savagely funny, snapshot of a society in all its glory and miseries.
As it happened, three days before the running of the Kentucky Derby in May 1970, Thompson, a Louisville native, pitched a story on the race to the editor of Scanlan’s Monthly, a short-lived but feisty political magazine. He got the assignment and was paired not with an American photographer but with an English illustrator, Ralph Steadman.
The resulting story, headlined The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, was Thompson’s first “gonzo journalism” piece and a warning shot announcing a powerful new voice in American journalism. He went on to write other influential works including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and The Rum Diary.
The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved will be brought to life in all its hallucinatory splendor at The Town Hall in New York on Friday May 5 by an extraordinary production team comprising actors Tim Robbins and Brad Hall, producer Hal Willner, composer and conductor Bill Frisell and actor and director Chloe Webb. Featuring a live cast, Steadman’s original artwork and a superb music ensemble performing Frisell’s original score, all of whom performed on the original 2012 CD release — Ron Miles (trumpet), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Hank Roberts (cello), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Doug Weiselman (woodwinds), Eyvind Kang (viola) and Kenny Wolleson (drums) — the show’s East Coast premiere takes place on the eve of this year’s Kentucky Derby.
“This is such a great piece. People try to define it: Is it music? Is theater? What is it? And I tell them that it’s performance art – and entertainment,” says Webb. “It’s almost like vaudeville. The music is beautiful, the words are funny, the story is ridiculous – but it’s all very pointed in terms of what is happening now. Over 40 years later, what is different now? It’s still about the rich old white boys in their private boxes and the rest of the people raising a ruckus down on the field. It’s an exploration of ‘So, what’s your excuse for bad behavior?'”
Robbins and Hall play Thompson and Steadman, respectively, and Webb notes that “this piece is in great part about Hunter meeting Ralph and the beginning of their partnership.” An American madman, even if he’s a brilliant writer, meets an Old World gentleman with a penchant for drawing observant but horribly unflattering portraits — an odd couple from the beginning but one that became a remarkable and fruitful collaboration.
Thompson’s description of their first encounter in The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved sets the tone:
“Steadman was already in the press box when I got there, a bearded young Englishman wearing a tweed coat and RAF sunglasses. There was nothing particularly odd about him. No facial veins or clumps of bristly warts. I told him about the motel woman’s description and he seemed puzzled. “Don’t let it bother you,” I said. “Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place. You’re lucky that mental defective at the motel didn’t jerk a pistol out of the cash register and blow a big hole in you.” I laughed, but he looked worried. “Just pretend you’re visiting a huge outdoor loony bin,” I said. “If the inmates get out of control we’ll soak them down with Mace.”
The Director Chloe Webb is best known for her performances in films including Sid and Nancy and The Belly of an Architect and TV series including China Beach and Shameless. But she is also a lifelong equestrian and equine therapist. For this stage adaptation, she adds a peculiar sort of a Greek chorus, providing a mute running commentary while dressed in a horse head, jockey pants and riding boots.
“The horse goes from being a horse to becoming Hunter,” she offers. “By the end, it has Hunter’s cigarette holder and aviator glasses and ends up dancing to Bill Frisell’s incredible music with Hunter, who is totally toasted.”
The debauchery surrounding the horse race, not just among the gentry but also perpetrated by Thompson and Steadman themselves, is captured in text and images that are both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply disturbing.
“And we are not changing a single word Hunter wrote,” says Webb. “We don’t have to. We are going to let it stand as is, but I think his words are going to resonate. Two years ago this might have been it a period piece and now it’s truly contemporary. ”
As in the original story, images of Steadman’s work will frame and accompany the text enacted by Robbins and Hall. This performance will also include more recent work by the artist.
“Ralph has done pictures of politicians and bigwigs over the years – and they are not particularly flattering portraits,” notes Webb with a chuckle. “We are adding some of those too, just to keep people aware of what exactly it is that we are going through right now. We’ve been here before.”
“When you read Hunter’s words and look at Ralph’s drawings they bring your attention to things that people usually have either blocked out, don’t want to see or just don’t discuss. This is social and political criticism done with great humor. You laugh – and that helps you look at things in a different way.”
“THE KENTUCKY DERBY IS DECADENT AND DEPRAVED”
with Tim Robbins & special guests Brad Hall and Chloe Webb
Music Composed and Conducted by Bill Frisell
Performed by Ron Miles, Curtis Fowlkes, Kenny Wolleson, Jenny Scheinman, Doug Weiselman, Eyvind Kang and Hank Roberts
Scripted from the original article by Hunter S. Thompson
Artwork by Ralph Steadman
Produced by Hal Willner
Directed by Chloe Webb
Friday, May 5 • 8:00pm
NEW YORK PREMIERE
THE TOWN HALL
123 West 43rd Street (between 6th Avenue and Broadway)
New York, NY 10036
The Town Hall Box Office 212-997-6661 or TICKETMASTER http://www.ticketmaster.com/