The message of Women and Horses and a Shot Straight From the Bottle is, "Mamas, do let your babies grow up to be cowgirls." The play by Los Angeles playwright Mary F. Casey is getting its world premiere production--and a strong one in most respects--at Echo Theatre at the Bath House Cultural Center. In two short acts, it tells a poignant mini-saga about three women, three men and one mean horse. Scenes unfold in flashbacks, with bold flashes of lightning kicking up the visual impact.
The stormy world of the rodeo circuit makes a colorful backdrop for a cast of colorful characters. Narrating the tale is a grizzled ranch hand named Bob, played nicely by the semi-grizzled John S. Davies. Bob is the boon companion to Flo Stange (Sandra Looney), a former trick rider grounded in middle age by a bum knee. She's tough as whang leather, as the old-timers say, but has room in her heart for lonely children, good horses and troublesome cowpokes.
Flo and Bob, we find out early on, are reluctantly serving as surrogate parents to young Sheilah Rogers (Lara Davison), abandoned at a tender age by her mixed-up mother Vernelle (Linda Leonard) and her no-account cowboy father "Mutt" (Jack O'Donnell). Sheilah grows up on Flo's ranch near Waco and by the time she's a teenager has developed into a top-notch bronc rider. Jealous of her success (a little) but in love with her beauty and spirit (a lot) is soft-spoken rodeo kid Baylor Harkness (Zane Harris).
Before a big ride on an especially fearsome bronco, Baylor warns Sheilah to rein in her go-for-broke attitude. "You think Death is just another good-lookin' cowboy you can flirt with," he says.
Death rides close to all the characters in Women and Horses but stays offstage, somewhere just beyond scenic designer Randel Wright's suggestion of rolling hills and fiery sunsets behind the upstage scrim. Before the first flashback, Death claims one of the main characters. But she shakes him off temporarily and returns to talk to the living to get them to "cowboy up" and forgive each other's mistakes in much the same way the ghostly girl brought peace to her kin in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved.
But Women and Horses is more than a ghost story. Forgiveness, and the peace it provides both sides in a feud, is a major theme. So is the idea of the inevitability of destiny. Although as Vernelle puts it, "There's fate and there's destiny and then there's Flo."
For a woman to succeed on the rodeo circuit, playwright Casey seems to say, she has to mask her vulnerability with nearly impenetrable layers of toughness. That these women are better at rodeo-ing than the men who love them leads to some complicated relationships. They have to ride into battle against angry animals--two-legged and four-legged--wearing emotional armor. And only when forced will the women admit even to each other that they're bruised inside and out for choosing to do what they do.
In the Echo Theater production, this play about flawed but likable characters was hampered on opening night only by some minor flaws on the technical side of things. Sound cues were haphazard. Phones didn't ring when they should. Lightning and thunder happened after characters called attention to them. During scene changes in the dark, actors kept knocking hanging panels of corrugated tin off the walls. Those sorts of missteps usually speak to a shortage of rehearsals (most theater companies have cut down to just two or three weeks of prep time to save money) and will surely smooth out during the run.
Otherwise, this production is a Thoroughbred. As he has before, designer Randel Wright makes the Bath House's intimate acting space look miles wider and deeper with his use of horizontal lines (in this case, a long corral fence) and his incorporation of the see-through scrim. Russell K. Dyer's lighting design paints the stage in the subtly shifting hues of sunlight, rainstorms and moonrises. Costume designer Sara Weeks dresses the characters in "oat couture."
Directed by Echo Theatre founder Pam Myers-Morgan, Women and Horses and a Shot Straight From the Bottle bristles with unbridled emotions and scary-wonderful moments of wide-open rage. Actors Davies, Looney and Leonard are the old hands at this, but it's especially exciting to see newcomers such as the lovely Lara Davison, a student actor just three years out of W.T. White High School, and University of North Texas senior Zane Harris (doing a bit of Heath Ledger's cowboy voice from Brokeback Mountain) breaking through, really letting loose and connecting to their characters and to each other. These two are not polished actors yet, but there's something appealing and appropriate about their raw, untamed performances.
Eat the Runt takes the stage with what sounds like a snappy little gimmick. At each performance the seven actors allow the audience to cast them in the play's eight roles. Ostensibly this means that all of the actors have memorized the entire play and are ready to jump into any part, depending on the audience's whims.
If only it worked out that way. Turns out, all is not so snappy. As presented by Act I Productions at The Corner Theatre in DeSoto, Eat the Runt (that title...gack) is littered with weak performances and dogged by its script's convoluted story line.
As for audience whimsy, at the performance reviewed during the second week of the run, the number of bodies in the seats barely outnumbered the bodies onstage. Audience participation, therefore, was limited. And it felt like a fix was in anyway, that somehow most of the casting decisions had been predetermined to get the best actors assigned the biggest roles (perhaps because there was a critic in the house).
Not that it mattered much. Eat the Runt affords no one a really good part and offers little to the viewer except maybe the chance to grab a nap for 95 minutes. Playwright Avery Crozier, trying for comedy, seems to be doing a satirical number on the inner workings of big-city art museums. But it's lame stuff that loses momentum shortly after the lights go up.
The play's main character, a young intellectual named Merritt (all the roles carry gender-neutral monickers), is seen going through a rigorous series of interviews for the job of grants coordinator. From office to office he (or she) travels. With each interviewer, Merritt manages to zero in on exactly what that person wants to hear--from the finer points of Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism to the sexual release of a really deep foot massage.
When Merritt's roommate, also named Merritt, shows up and claims to be the real applicant, not Merritt No. 1, who might be some sort of psycho actor playing a bad prank, high jinks are supposed to ensue. But Eat the Runt can manage only low-jinks, with bad jokes about menstruation and sight gags built around a woman who makes cheese from human breast milk.
It's always a bit sad to watch decent actors wasting their time and talent in diddly-squat shows like this. Runt's company of players includes young Brian Witkowicz, who's done good work in roles at Dallas Children's Theater, and Ginger Goldman, a comic firecracker who was dandy as Annelle in Pocket Sandwich Theatre's Steel Magnolias recently. They played the pair of Merritts on the night reviewed and did all they could not to make the play suck more than it had to--something their four other castmates didn't work hard enough at. Joel McDonald, who was in Theatre Three's Metamorphoses and Theatre Britain's Macbeth, also is in the lineup for the show but was out sick. Wise move.
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