By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The whole time I was watching Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling, the latest mini-production from the Undermain Theatre that started in Austin and is about to travel to New York, the voices and faces of the great female-male partnerships of country music--Loretta and Conway, Tammy and George, Dolly and Porter--floated through my head. Part of it, of course, was the fact that the co-writers and co-stars of this hillbilly operetta, Ruth Margraff and Nick Brisco, hoisted accordions and acoustic guitars and resembled a pair of honky-tonk veterans caught in a psychedelic snafu. With her square face, high cheekbones and unruly mane of red curls, Margraff was a fusion of Naomi Judd and Exene Cervenka, while Brisco's heavily lidded eyes and shoe polish-black hair suggested Chris Isaak on the tail end of a bender. But more than that, these collaborators found an impressively subdued give-and-take of very poeticized lyrics that alternated just like duets, appropriate to the history of a woman-as-property who falls in love and is betrayed by her captor.
Judges is the seventh chapter of the Bible, and the wanton acts of violence it depicts are often cited as evidence of why the first central Israeli authority was necessary--up to that point, everybody followed his own need for survival and vengeance. Moving among four microphones set up in the Undermain's basement space, Margraff plays the Concubine and Brisco the Levite (both in belt buckles and cowboy boots, as the tale has been transferred to Appalachia). She runs away to her coal miner father's home, is pursued and convinced to return to her owner's hearth, and both are besieged by a tribe of enraged and aroused men hell-bent on the rape of the Levite. Guess who gets tossed their way instead. Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling is performed almost entirely as a series of ballads whose instrumental simplicity contrasts with its ornate lyrical intensity. Brisco, the veteran Dallas music scenester, has a more conventional country-rock background and voice. Margraff isn't exactly a singer, but she speaks in a breathy, singsong half-chant that's mesmerizing for the play's brief duration.
Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling runs through June 9 at the Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St. in Deep Ellum. Call (214) 747-5515.
Though Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling clocks in at less than an hour, the thickly textured imagery and wordplay that Margraff and Brisco impart possesses enough frissons for a full novel written in verse. Full disclosure: The instant I paused to savor something spoken or sung, I realized I'd missed what had transpired since. There are worse kinds of dissatisfaction, but truthfully, I'm not sure many people will get the full experience of the show from just one visit. I don't mean to caution anyone away from this crudely but potently hewn piece of rural American mythology. Just be prepared to keep pace at a brisk mental jog as Margraff and Brisco spin their densely symbolic biblical variation with steely concentration.