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

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Establishing the Euphemism OR Blues III: From the Bars to th Folk Clubs

Seems like the Blues class rolled around again quickly this week. The folk/Blues nexus was on the menu, and the enigmatic Mark Dvorak was the featured speaker.

Why enigmatic? Well, put it this way: Aieeee! Indigenous Banjo!, and last week. Also, as M put it: He's kind of like Mr. Rogers---he speaks calmly and soothingly. It seems unlikely that Mark Dvorak ever wonders if he's going to have to choke a bitch. If your skin is crawling, either because of the banjo or because of the comparison to Everybody's Neighbor, you're way off base.

Mark's personal website indicates that his core competency is bringing music to groups that are diverse in age and/or experience (muscial and otherwise) and turning it into something both musical and social (in particular, click on the "Old Songs & New People" link on his site). Although I find some of the quotes from reviews on his personal website amusingly sedate, the comment that he accomplishes this "without silliness" leapt out at me. Ok, actually, as I read further, the person being quoted talks about treating the music with the "dignity in which they were conceived," so perhaps the ambiguously indicated commentor and I are not on the same page.

At Old Town, Mark teaches a few of the core guitar classes (right now, he's teaching higher level classes, but I don't know if that's usual or if he's just been moving along with a single class) and the spontaneous folk ensemble. He's also the "historian" for the Old Town School's Song Book, tracking down information on the songs included in the book as well as the folks who wrote and/or made them famous. I'm not overly familiar with him, because he isn't one of the regular Thursday night teachers, but I have heard people rave about the spontaneous folk ensemble. It's a voice and stringed-instrument group and one of the few that has no specified skill level required for either.

Having before read the description at the Old Town School website, I had been scared away by the emphasis on paperlessness (had a bad bad bad experience early on in my guitar "career" with a different Old Town School "old timer" who worked this way), but even more so regaring working well with others (remember, my stage manager bio was: Runs with scissors and does not play well with others, which is why she spends performances locked in the booth). Having now seen Mark in action, though, I wouldn't have any fear about walking into that situation, knowing he was at the helm.

As for getting a taste of his m@d 5k1llz today: People were filing in a bit later than usual, it seemed, because of some torrential downpour just before 10. Mark was sitting at the front, plucking away at Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" as people found their seats, and although Skip did give a brief introduction, that kind of informality set the tone. Through much of the next hour and a half or so, he would talk and play softly at the same time. If you're me, this kept you in constant anticipation of him saying: "'round about now, those Duke boys had made ol' Roscoe madder than a centipede with bunyons." Fortunately for most of you, you're not me, and you probably were able to enjoy the effectiveness of the technique unimpeded.

As has been typical of the sessions so far, Mark was able to cover a lot of ground and interesting material within a session that superficially seemed unstructured. (He himself kept referring to his "rambling." I am a rambler from way back. You, sir, are no rambler.) If opening with a pre-1900, non-Blues song seemed odd, he explained right away that his approach was very much to explore the form of music to see the connections in different genres. To illustrate, he then played "Careless Love," a song that Bessie Smith made famous in a 1925 recording. "Careless love" is quite pointedly not Blues: It's on the OTSFM song book, for cripe's sake!

More seriously, it's the requisite folk 16-bar format and the first line repeats three times, rather than the Blues standard of two repetitions. But then there's the content, which is undeniably Blues ("I used to wear my apron low" vs. "Now those apron strings don't pin"). Is it Blues? Is it Folk? It was a great demonstration of what would be one of his overarching points, namely that genre distinctions are largely a marketing problem that became more complicated as music became more commercial. Bluesmen and folk singers, who are most often blissfully free from fear of commercial success, have traditionally been able to skip worrying about such distinctions.

Having laid bare the formal relationships between Folk and the Blues, he went on to talk about the typical musical experience and exposure of early Blues musicians as they moved out of the heart of the South. Obviously there was a physical meeting of cultures, but music was also becoming available on a larger scale with the maturation of the recording industry and the birth of radio. In contrast to our current experience of 50 stations' worth of crap, Mark pointed out (ok, he is a very nice man, so he said nothing about crap), people would have been exposed to cowboy songs, bing crosby, old time folk, and so on, in the same place. Thus, no one was readily able to choose hunkering down at a spot on the dial and ignoring the bulk of musical genres.

In case anyone was interested in arguing this point, he pulled out the big guns and told a story about Muddy Waters (anyone feel like stepping up and questioning Muddy's Blues street cred? [In the interests of full disclosure, I now find that I am not 100% sure whether this was about Muddy or about Leadbelly, but the street-cred challenge and my chuckling stand either way, and I'm about 98% sure it was Muddy]) that still has me chuckling. I don't know when Mark began his historian duties for the OTSFM, but I'm guessing it was after Muddy's death in 1983; however, the way he told this made me think he had it first hand from a musician who played with Muddy. Apparently, one night, shortly before a show, a woman came to the stage door and was enthusiastically welcomed by Muddy who took her into his dressing room and shut the door. The band was nervous because they were just a few minutes from a sound check, but no one wanted to be the one who interrupted what they assumed was a little "Careless Love" going on (see what I mean about the Euphemism?). Finally, someone steeled himself to do it. He pressed his ear to do the door and heard the unmistakable sounds of Muddy and this woman singing Gene Autry songs.

To bring things back around to folk, specifically, again, he talked about Alan Lomax's "discovery" of a young man named McKinley Morganfield. (It's funny, Alan Lomax goes down to find Robert Johnson [who'd been dead for a while by the time he thought to look] and instead stumbles across Muddy freakin' Waters. And people still say it was Robert [or Tommy] who sold his soul.) He didn't dwell on the point too much, but certainly the breadth of styles in which Muddy was encouraged to record early on is partly an accident of the fate the decreed he be popularized by a musical historian, interested in absolutely every nook and cranny of Muddy's musical influences, rather than a label that wanted to pay him as little as possible to record marketable sides.

This prompted a return to the loaded question of the week, which turned out to be exactly the same loaded question as last week, namely our white guilt reminder that no Blues musician ever made any money, and no Blues musican ever played for white people until the 50s. I've voiced (electronified?) before that this is a two-edged sword for me: I want to hear more about the economics of early Blues, but I'm irritated the manner in which it's been brought up each week. In the last two sessions, both Chris and Eric demurred from commenting much, not because of any desire to sweep it under the carpet (at least not in my opinion).

Mark had a few data points to add, though, again drawn from his work on the song book. He talked about the so-called two-way picnics at which Black musicians played, serially, for segregated groups of picnickers (oooh, the fakelore etymology for picnic rears its head, once again paging to the white courtesy phone). The topic came up again with regard to Brownie McGhee (whom Mark got to interview over two days in 1994). Contextually, this seemed related to the assumption that only someone in dire straits indeed would live in Oakland. For the record, Mark described the house Brownie owned as "modest" (which totally tweaked my delicate Midwestern "We do NOT talk about how much a person's house cost!" sensibilities but good) and noted that the car parked in the driveway had the plates "Walk On," because "Find My Way Home" was the song that was his big moneymaker.

Backing up a bit, though, Leadbelly was a major topic of conversation, which brought us to our shiny new instrument of the week, namely the Stella (!) 12-string by Ralph Bown. For Leadbelly-demonstration purposes, he was in standard Spanish guitar tuning (E B G D A E from high to low), with the E, B, and G string pairs tuned to identical notes, D and A tuned an octave a part, and the low E string and its partner tuned two octaves apart. As usual, the initial appeal of the 12-string for Blues musicians was the desire for the instruments to be heard over the crowd. However, as is evident in the persnicketty and highly personal approach to tuning, the 12-string also gives ample room to create a personal sound.

If you're going to talk about Leadbelly, "Midnight Special" is the natural demonstration piece to use and Mark got to it eventually. First, though, he talked about "Fannin Street (Mr. Tom Hughes') Town," which is autobiographical. The street constituted Shreveport's Red Light district, where young Huddie Ledbetter visited his uncle, a piano player in a brothel who told him "look straight ahead, boy." (I think we have a Sportin' House hat trick going so far, although I can't remember in what context Eric brought it up, but my sense of symmetry demands that he did.) Mark referenced Leadbelly's own story about the song and how when he was "wearin' long pants," he just couldn't stay away from Fannin Street and everything it implied (both music and sex, of course, in good Hokum style), and told of his own experience of looking for the street and the district and accidentally heading the wrong way down the hill from the Church at Fannin and Douglas, only to wind up in the very white part of town.

When Mark did make his way around to "Midnight Special," he talked a bit about the metaphors of the song, including the "Special" itself: Although the midnight train itself brought prisoners into Sugar Land prison, its head lamp was thought to bring luck to a prison if it shone its ever-lovin' light on him. As has been typical of these sessions, I knew about the bit of folklore, but for the first time I thought about the role the Lomax brothers played in getting the perennially-in-trouble Leadbelly out of prison, I wonder if the Special really did shine on him. Second, he talked about "jumpin' Judy," the guard's bullwhip, which woke up the prisoners and signaled the beginning of the work day. (And he was gracious enough to admit that he'd taken "Judy" to be a woman, too, until he got into the research.)

Turning back to the folk scene again, Mark brought us a bit further forward in time by bringing up the Newport Folk Festival and what I assume most people (myself included) would have thought of as being the "real" Blues/Folk collision in the '60s. Specifically, he talked about Mississippi John Hurt whose original "discovery" was fairly traditional. A traveling representative of Vocalion came to Mississippi in 1928 and he auditioned. His trip later trips to Memphis and later New York to record for Okeh had left him burned out on the recording experience, and the Depression conspired with this to bring his early career to an abrupt end.

In the 1960s, Tom Hoskins showed up on his doorstep having headed down to Avalon, Mississippi, with nothing but a lead from the song and a directory listing. According to Hoskins, Hurt opened the door and he could just see his guitar leaning in the corner, as if he'd just put it down. Mark played "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" to demonstrate Hurt's self-taught style. Hurt prided himself that he learned on his own and played guitar the way he thought it ought to be played (and recordings I've just hunted down certainly bear out the fact that he was a shit hot player with an unmistakable sound), but it's interesting that even though he came to Blues in comparative isolation, it's all there---the folk, country, jazz and native Blues all come together, which is convenient for the theme of this session.

And speaking of distinctive styles, my addled brain is now recalling that, throughout, Mark inserted brief demonstrations of the different Blues styles: "Memphis, Delta, Piedmont, Texas, and the Reverend Gary Davis," as he said. Although he wasn't as didactic in his demonstrations (I have the feeling he doesn't think of the guitar as "his" instrument, despite the fact that he, too, needs killing), he once again mentioned the connection between guitar style and piano. This point being emphasized by everyone makes me unsure whether I should congratulate myself on my choice of instruments to play or shoot myself for sucking at both.

The last portion of the session was well spent in recounting Mark's first-hand accounts of interviewing Brownie McGhee (For those of you who don't click links, shame on you! But also: "I didn't make too many records with Leadbelly. The truth about it, Lead had his 12-string guitar, and I was playin' a steel National. My guitar was loud as hell, and I had no sympathy for anybody else." Gotta love it) in 1994. He sheepishly admitted that he'd brought his guitar in the hopes of getting to play with Brownie, but found himself too shy to bring it up himself. After spending the first day and much of the second sitting with Brownie in his front driveway as he minded he grandkids, one of the kids finally asked why he'd brought his guitar. Mark told him he'd been afraid that it would get stolen at the hotel, to which the kid replied, "Nuh uh, you want Uncle Brownie to play it!" The shame of being busted by an 8-year-old appears to have been well worth it, though, because Brownie took him into the house (which was lined with plates he'd bought for his wife, one in each country he'd visited in his career with Blind Sonny Terry).

Brownie apparently had a piano and much of his career memorabilia in a converted pantry. After playing a bit of "Find My Way Home," he demanded that Mark play him something on the guitar. Being human, Mark was apparently a bit nervous, but had the presence of mind to break into a bit of the simple dissected chord style that he'd learned from books that were supposedly put out by Brownie. Given this, Mark was understandably nonplussed when Brownie asked where he'd learned to play like that. When Mark said, "Your books!" Brownie smiled and said, "I never wrote no books."

Mark's fearlessness gave us another interesting Brownie tidbit. Mark said he'd been warned not to ask about Sonny Terry, because the scuttlebutt was the two had not gotten along. (Brownie is rumored to have said that he lived in Oakland because Sonny lived in New York: "I'd live in Guam if I knew the language.") Presumably on some kind of natural high after playing with and for him, Mark asked anyway and was pleased that Brownie spoke affectionately and said they'd been friends for 40 years, even if they hadn't always gotten along.

Mark then played his own "One Couldn't Run, One Couldn't See," (about Brownie [crippled by polio] and Blind Sonny Terry [literally, not metaphorically blind]) then, which would probably have been the last song if the crowd hadn't demanded that he play the sorely neglected banjo. He obliged us with the "Worried Man Blues," which got people singing softly and nervously and brought the postsession talk back around to racism and exploitation. During the course of the session, he'd remarked that the history of American music is really a history of racism. I know the idea isn't his alone, but his as the overall shape and content of the session revealed.

In writing this, it sounds as if Mark rambled more than he did. On the one hand, it's usually safe to blame me for rambling. On the other, he did ramble in the most positive sense of the word. I feel like I was on a long, relaxing walk on a pleasant day with a great storyteller. I'd say Old Town and Oakton are three for three. Go SCHOOL!

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Congeniality: Part II of Telecommuniculturey in the Twin Cities

I didn't sleep well last night, which was purely my own fault.

I went to bed with A and K. (Well, not WITH them, you understand [because we're NOT THAT WAY], but technically at the same time as they did.) But then, of course, I was itching to write about Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage while the details were still fresh in my mind. And then I was feeling guilty about the delicious peanut butter chocolate bars that I had at Luce after the show, so I decided to do some Yoga. By then, for some reason, my brain just wasn't in falling asleep mode. I drifted in and out of sleep from about 3:00 AM to probably 5:30 when REM seemed on the horizon (uh, the phenomenon, not the band). And then A decided to put a box of nails in the dryer and turn it on two doors down from my room. (Really, she had pants that were not at optimum dryness, but my precoffee Neanderthal is not rational.)

PCN got up for good around 8:30, and A and I sat, had coffee, chatted, and knitted until near 11:00 AM. We then set out to find lunch at Turtle Bread Company, where we took an outside table and scared the nice (I'm sure) young (I'm positive) fellow behind us away from the New York Times and the place entirely by talking about the state of our underwear and asscracks in the perilous days of low- and mid-rise jeans.

From there the two of us and my hot new lexie barnes knitting bag (which is dope, yo, and came with a llama [alpaca, actually, but all camelids are one]) strolled over to Needlework Unlimited, where I nodded cooly at all the yarn, partly because my new bag is that hot, and partly because the bitches didn't have Last-Minute Knitted Gifts, so I couldn't load up on yarn for the hourglass sweater. A did emerge with a magazine chock full o' patterns flattering to the booblicious.

It was in this yarn store that A first formulated her completely false hypothesis that it is my presence that leads her to such utterances as "And the puppy got out. Well, he didn't mean to get out. Well, I think he meant to get out. But we didn't mean to LET him out." I just patted her on the head and told her she was my little anti-Chomskyian ace in the hole. Innate grammar, my disproportionate ass.

As we returned to the car, we saw a very cute dog that was QUITE CLEARLY being abused by the people sitting near him and petting him affectionately as they sipped coffee in the pleasant afternoon sun. I was up for a rescue, but A has a heart of stone. We drove onward to the chi-chi Linden hills neighborhood and yet another Local Yarn Store, Linden Hills Yarns (no website, sadly). Once again, I stood firm in my nonpurchasey resolve as someone with an already alarming stash made a purchase. But this is FOR A PROJECT, she claims.

Afterward, we ducked into into Wild Rumpus, which is, as advertised, the coolest children's bookstore in the world. Among their impressive collection of, well, books, they also boast a chicken, an adult manx cat, the fuzziest manx kitten EVAR, a wide variety of birds, an aquarium in place of the bathroom mirror, and the world's most pissed-off chinchilla. Every single word of the preceding sentence is true, incidentally. Oh, and they were playing the Putumayo American Folk CD, featuring, among others, Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, and my recently rediscovered love, Lucy Kaplansky. I also scored a copy of Unexpected Magic, a collection of Diana Wynne Jones stories that I did not have.

We wandered further to a kind of crunchy, munchy home wares store that also featured baby clothes that were too cute by half (onesies with matching hats with ears, tails, etc.). They also had "Maggie's Og Ctn Camisoles," but Og considered them to be suspect, given the smell of cinnamon about the place. Og much preferred the lovely Bibelot store, where A would not let me buy the Shoes of my dreams, even though they were 30% off way too much money. I plan on blaming her when I get in trouble for wearing birkenstocks and my flying pigs dress to my aunt's wedding.

Brutally wrenched from the only non-Chuck Taylor, non-Dr. Marten shoes without monkeys on them that I will ever love, I sulked and had only a cappucino at Sebastian Joe's, where we sat and knit until the sun discovered our location and recommenced trying to kill me. (Please note, my copy of the shirt exposing the sun's evil plot was, I believe, purchased from the highly superior Munky King site.)

We returned to the old homestead to take the resident Wolf for his long-promised walk. As we toured "the hood," A discovered at several points that she is not tall enough to ride the "This Real Estate is for Sale" ride, given that all the cunning little boxes containing informational sheets are placed roughly 12 inches above her reach. I happen to believe that this is by special arrangement with K who is all about follow through on the on-going Homestead Improvement Plan.

And speaking of K, as we pointed our sadly arthritic wolf homeward, we discovered that he had returned from the salt mines. Likewise a colleague of A (hereinafter denoted A-prime) was feeling brave enough to ask if we'd like to have dinner. I feel certain that this indicates that my hostess never, ever talks about me.

We tragically went with atmosphere over guaranteed quality in our choice of dining establishment. The Loring Pasta Bar proved to be asa cool looking as all my native guides had promised it would. However, I can now tell you from experience that you do not want to be served by A Former American Idol Also-Ran who has fallen on hard times. A-prime's salmon was unexpectedly coated with stuff that would kill her. Our drinks appear to have been drawn from the well of lost souls with a thimble. And most tragically, apparently one would have had to choke a bitch to get another basket of bread and/or the check.

When we finally escaped (after a mandated visit to the "coolest bathroom in the world" [my second visit to the facilities supposedly holding this title, intwo very separate locations, I'll note]), we fed the meter and thought we'd wander for a while. In our wanderings, we passed Kafe 421, which had been one of A-prime's first suggestions for dinner. A, in her typcial revisionist way, later claimed that she had nixed it on the grounds that it was spelled with a "K," despite the fact that all three of us heard her exclaim in surprise that it was spelled with a "K" when we walked up.

Tonight was the night that Kafe 421 redeemed Dinky Town (that, like all other parts of this post, is 100% true). We were seated immediately and the best waiter ever informed us that their bottles of wine are half price on Mondays and Wednesdays. Although our original pick (Brancott Pinot Noir) was not available on account of distributor flakery, our uberwaiter recommended the Gaia Notios Red, which both K and I found quite pleasant, particularly for a Greek wine.

We had great dessert (Samana---a chocolate lava cake---for me; key lime pie for K; chocolate mousse and strawberries for A; and ice cream, strawberries, and a flower that may or may not technically have been edible for A-prime) and excellent service (despite the fact that I kept devolving into Muttley laughter at every fresh piece of evidence that the supposedly completely sober A ought not to be birthin' no babies this evening, should such an eventuality arise) that never even hinted that we might be unwelcome, though we left more than 15 minutes after their official closing time.

In summary, none of you bitches had as good a day as I did, nails in the dryer notwithstanding. Also, I think I'm ready for NASCAR, given all the product and business placement here.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

With Science, All Things Are Possible

So this has nothing to do with Chicago per se, although it is deeply cultural.

World's Fair and Science Creative Quarterly (SCQ) have embarked on a project that is interesting and worthy. First off, SCQ is soliciting Haikus from scientists and artists (in the broadest senses of both words) that reflect on a particular organism.

This is intended to be a bioinformatics project that will help to populate the phylogeny section they are trying to build on the SCQ site. If bioinformatics and phylogeny don't get you hot all by their lonesome, add competition to the mix. All Haiku authors wishing to enter for their chance to win the peoples' ovation and fame for ever must pay an entrance fee of their choosing. This fee will be considered to be a donation to the DonorsChoose program. Donations $10 and greater (up to a total of $10,000) will be matched by Seed Magazine.

So everybody wins: SCQ gets poetic bionformatics, you get that good low-down tickle that goes with artistic achievement and the chance to win fabulous prizes, and the next generation gets science and the chance to overthrow the vile spawn of today's lunacy.

Go. Poetize. Donate. Redeem.

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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