High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Lust in the Dustless Astrodirt

Telecommuniculturey is on the road this week, reporting to you live from the fair city of Minneapolis, where, as some genius observed this evening, it stays light a lot later. We've been having a grand time in general at places like the Chatterbox Pub, which features furniture rescued from your grandparents' living room (minus the plastic covers) plopped in front of TVs with original Nintendos and Atari 2600s hooked up to them. But tonight, it was time to get cultural. Naturally we opted for the show that promised jockstraps and body parts.

After reviewing the City Pages, our options had been narrowed down to London After Midnight: Victorian Tales of Crime and the Supernatural or Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage. Like all city arts papers, City Pages loves nothing better than to hate everything. Thus, the fact that they really, REALLY liked Flaming Guns (and pronounced it "hilarious") had us a bit nonplussed. Would it be a case of Tartuffe the Wonderdog? Or could it simply be that not even the cranky, pretentious, beret-wearing brigade could fail to find the show funny? When K expressed a preference for jockstraps over spats, the die was cast.

In reading the brief reivew, I had noted that the playwright's name was "Jane Martin." And I thought to myself, "Hmm . . . odd. Shoestring almost did a play called Keeley and Du by a Jane Martin." However Keeley and Du is a taut, bleak drama about an anti-abortion group that kidnaps a woman seeking an abortion and plans to keep her prisoner until she delivers. Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage is subtitled "A 'B' Western Horror Flick for the Stage" (also: jockstraps and body parts---I can't tell you how much everyone wanted us to know about that going in), so I mentally filed the playwright's (playwrights') name(s) under coincidence I figured that this must be some other Jane Martin. But of course, there is only one Jane Martin, unless Jane Martin is actually two people. (Please note, that URL happens to link to the august institution of higher learning attended by M.)

This production was being mounted by The Theatre in the Round Players, which, in its 54th season, is the oldest community theatre in the Twin Cities. As advertised, their space is in the round, and a lovely space it is. The lobby is large, interesting, and comfortable. Their next season is beautifully previewed with artwork and play blurbs displayed on trapeze frames, and there is an art gallery that, I gather, features something by a different artist during each production.

The stage itself is probably between 15-20 feet in diameter. The stadium seating is well-raked and seats 249 (my estimate was off by one, I just learned by clicking on the "unique stage" link from the main page linked above). They're not kidding when they say there isn't a bad seat in the house. Well, except for ours tonight, because although we had a nice row of three to ourselves in section "E," we had two people who did not shut up for two fucking hours sitting behind us. I assure you, we were privy to every single thought that fluttered through their heads the whole time.

The play is, overall, an excellent comedy. Definitely on the low-brow, broad humor end of the spectrum, but tinged black enough and with sufficient absurdity that I think it would appeal to almost everyone. The three of us agreed that the second scene of Act II dragged somewhat, and we further diagnosed this as mostly the fault of the play, rather than the production.

The story centers around the characters on a small ranch in Casper, Wyoming. Big 8, the proprietress of the ranch, has fallen on hard times since a head injury killed her rodeo career. Although she has a knack for healing busted-up rodeo cowboys, she tends to take it out in trade. When the story begins, her patient is the '04 top cowboy "Rob Bob," a dim young man who navigates the rough waters of life, love, and morality using old Westerns as his only guide.

Things at the ranch are not much improved by the late-night arrival of "Shedevil," an angry young woman (and you'd be angry, too, if you'd been pierced within an inch of your life and had hair the color of strawberry milkshake vomit). She claims to have hitch hiked 1700 miles in search of Lucifer Lee, the lounge-singing deadbeat son of Big 8 and, Shedevil claims, her husband and the father of her child. And, oh, by the way, she has a Ukranian biker after her, because she stole his coke money. At Rob Bob's insistence that they behave according to the Cowboy Code, Big 8 unwillingly (and half-assedly) takes Shedevil in for the night.

In the morning, Big 8 and her big sister Shirl take an equally half-assed approach to throwing Shedevil out before they head off to do the grocery shopping. Shedevil takes the opportunity to turn the place upside down in search of available cash. When she only turns up a small box of cheap jewelry and Big 8's stash of top cowboys' belt buckles (trophies won from those she's "healed"), she decides to get while the getting's good anyway. Unfortunately, her rifling through the house awakens Rob Bob, who, armed with boots, six gun, and jock strap, is struck by "love at first sight," which makes Shedevil the schoolmarm and means he's one step closer to being the hero instead of the young cowboy befriended by the hero.

Shedevil is unexpectedly charmed by him, and the two are basking in the afterglow by way of warm up for round two when Big 8 and Shirl return with the shopping. There's precious little time for Big 8 to make a scene over the loss of her lover, though, because Black Dog shows up, intent on crushing their skulls and eating them. Rob Bob runs for his gun and launches into High Noon. Whether because he is trapped behind a cultural barrier or simply because he is unarmed, Black Dog fails to draw, and Rob Bob unloads his gun into him.

Although Black Dog has spurted copious amounts of blood during the intermission, it becomes apparent during the frantic discussion of what to do with him that he is not, in fact, dead. He gets up and stumbles around long enough to growl more threats and demand a beer (because you have to have the beer-coming-out-of-the-gunshot-wound gag whenever possible). After another round of faceplanting, resurrection, and a moral crisis for Rob Bob who is faced with the reality that he shot an unarmed, quite possibly non--English speaking, and definitely confused man, Rob Bob finally siezes Black Dog's own knife and seems to have finished him off.

Their problems are far from solved, however, because Shirl's impotent fiance (he took an injury below the waist in defense of a bulk grocery store), who happens to be the deputy sheriff is on his way to the ranch to propose to her as he has done on the first of every month for the last 18. Faced with a man twice anyone's size, a kitchen full of blood, a screaming, pregnant punker thief, and a deputy on the way, our players get a little silly. With difficulty and some timely deployment of blood-soaked breasts, however, they get the corpse of Black Dog in the broom closet before Deputy Baxter Blue comes in.

As dim as Baxter is, and as distracting as Shirl's hypnoboobies are, her claim of a nosebleed doesn't hold up for long, and she is forced to accept his marriage proposal to keep him distracted. As he finishes a speech about his own merits, and then (with much prodding and reminding) Shirl's, Black Dog bursts through the broom closet door, growling about his need to eat them once again. Baxter unloads his revolver into him and, once again, Black Dog seems really most sincerely dead. Although Baxter, who seems actually to live by Rob Bob's much-vaunted Good Guy code, is determined to turn himself in, the others convince him that Black Dog was deeply depressed and wanted nothing more than to disappear. Furthermore, they assure him that, even though he shot an unarmed man who was only trying to make a joke, they will help him hide his crime in deference to his new staus as family.

Although they're still left with a body-disposal problem, things are now not so urgent, and Shirl reveals that she has the tools and aprons from her job at the slaughterhouse in her truck. They finish up the dismemberment and Baxter hauls the bags into his cruiser, preparatory to hiding them in the cistern at the station house. This done and just the housework to go, Big 8 gives Rob Bob and Shedevil her blessing to go off to his father's cabin.

But far from being the aging, castoff, Big 8 is revenged. As Rob Bob and Shedevil leave, Big 8 nixes his final guitar tune, but suggests that the ever-traditional Rob Bob carry his intended over the threshold, causing him to reinjure his back. When they're well gone, she then pulls out Shedevil's wad of stolen cash---enough to save the ranch and give Shirl a cut, too. Big 8 admits that she'll miss the loving, which gets harder and harder to come by, just as there is a knock at the door (or would be, if Black Dog didn't have something serious against doors), ushering in her next patient. Baxter comes in to say his goodbyes and tie up the last loose end: Since he shot Black Dog, he's been hard as a rock. The sisters spare a moment to shrug over their amorality (as Shirl says: They're just doing what they gotta to get by.) and to share a dance.

Staging in the round can be a Colbertian bear and a half, but obviously this company is more than comfortable in their arena. The set for this was sparse but realistic. The kitchen comprised a refrigerator, stove, sink with cabinets, and butcher block island with stools for rejected sex, interrupted sex, and the final stages of body dismemberment. There was also a round wooden table with four captain's chairs with a wood/antler/skin shade chandelier above it. Opposite the sink side of things was a wooden desk and rolling chair for storage of bourbon and cash. A soupcon of living room was achieved by a small end table with magazine rack and The World's Best Chair: Red leather with horse's head embossed in silver on the back, wooden arms supported on each side by half wagon wheels. A was quite scornful of the chair until I pointed out the job satisfaction that the props hound must have had when s/he first laid eyes on this beauty in some thrift store or friend's attic.

The costuming was pretty much contemporary, but there were a number of nice individual touches nonetheless. For example, Big 8's costume was a pretty basic set of jeans with a studded denim top and makeup 20 years out of date. Shirl, for contrast, sported a cute pink baseball cap, a floral-print denim shirt, denim capris, and keds, giving her a more urban and on-the-market look that had the bonus of being right at home for a Minneapolis audience. And it was very clear that a lot of tender loving care went into finding not just the right jock strap for Rob Bob, but the perfect boots to accent it.

After Friday night, the ghost of Thespis knows that I would have been content with a merely competent lighting design, and I'm happy to report that this design went above and beyond. The house lighting (the aforementioned chandalier, which had ambience coming out of each and every one of its little hide shades, and a hanging lamp over the kitchen area) was as simple looking as could be, but it went a long way toward creating a convincing interior space, which isn't easy when the audience is more or less looking down into the set. The opening lightning was done exactly right, and the gobo creating a window-pane effect also contributed to that "snug interior" feel. The sound design was likewise a delight, and the preshow and intermission music (lots of really classic cowboy tunes) were desired by both me and A.

But the real treat of the evening was the performances. As Big 8, Karen Wiese-Thompson had everything. She pulled off the aging-but-lusty rodeo legend in her early scenes with Rob Bob and fired it up again at the end for the brief scene with Memphis Donnie Pride, the next in her long line of patients. For comedy, she really couldn't be beat, pulling off big, broad funnies (Jesus: You make my cross too big) and subtler jabs (There was a little bit goin' on) with equally flawless timing. And she damn near killed us all with physical comedy when she started rolling back and forth and doing the worm by way of mopping up the pools of blood in a hurry.

Next up, I have to give a big damned hand to Josh Jabas, who was exceptionally good as Rob Bob. Playing someone relentlessly dense can get old in a hurry, but it never did with Rob Bob, thanks to Jabas's performance. He was dumb as a rock, but also heart-breakingly sweet as he falls for Shedevil, and touching in his steely resolve to do somethin' damned manly when the situation called for it. Also, did I mention that he spends fully one-half of Act I in his jock strap and boots?

Sally Ann Wright was also a stand out as Shirl. I think it could have been very easy to have Big 8/Shirl overdose without sufficiently differentiating the roles. I'm not sure how much to attribute to Lynn Musgrave's direction, how much to Wright's talent and very different comedic style, and how much to her chemistry with Wiese-Thompson. Whatever the recipe, though, she and Big 8 were convincing sisters and individuals in their own right.

As Shedevil, Rachel Finch was somewhat uneven. The part is not especially complex or well fleshed out, but I still felt that she was unnecessarily "all shouting all the time" in the first scene when she arrived. She picked up more layers and subtlety in the second Act, though I'm perhaps unfairly inclined to attribute this to the fact that Josh Jabas was so flawlessly charming. She seems young, and I think maybe my issues with her had more to do with the fact that she wasn't as seasoned a perfomer as the others than any irremediable flaws in her.

Last and possibly least was Kevin Schrammen as Baxter Blue. Again, it's hard to separate out issues with the script and issues with the actor. Schrammen first appears in a part of the play where things slow way down. Until then, there's been dialogue flying, then lots of madcap action. And then Baxter shows up, Black Dog is, at long last, safely in the broom closet, and he has a whoooooollle lotta dialogue, leaving everyone else with not much to do. As I was saying to my hosts afterward, the room and the characters are literally covered in blood, so it's not like they can be hiding little things he might find, and you can only go to the "Black Dog nearly falls out the door of the closet" well so many times. So maybe the play needed some cutting, but we all also seemed to agree that someone with a bit more energy and better timing might have made more of the role.

But minor cast and script quibbles aside, this was such an enjoyable outing that A left having pretty much resolved to get season tickets for next year. And to look into how I can one day own MY CHAIR. Rock on A.

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