The Arts Voyager, 8-16: Tales of the Texas Rangers
SceneShop expands the monologue
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak
FORT WORTH -- When I recently told a Parisian friend I was thinking of settling here, she replied with shock: "But, Texas -- it's the land of Bush and 'Dallas,' n'est pas?" On a week-end when the Lone Star State stood poised to propose another Bible-pounding, Constitution-disdaining, fact-distorting, Koch-fueled climate warming denying president -- Governor Rick Perry having announced his candidacy -- the SceneShop theater collective Saturday offered up a needed reminder of the larger and legendary place that Texas, like New Orleans, California, and a New York State of Mind, has long occupied in the American landscape. All but one of the seven plays, presented by and at Arts Fifth Avenue in Fort Worth's historic Fairmount District, not only feted and played with notions of Texas and notions of theater, but even notions of the monologue, the program's title, Lone Star Voices, having a double meaning.
Fort Worth, once an anchor of the Chisholm Trail, claims as its motto "cowboys and culture." I've sometimes wondered if my own expectation of finding cowboy culture here is fueled less by present reality and more by old shows like radio's Tales of the Texas Rangers, a Lone Star Dragnet in which Joel McCrea, as Ranger Jase Pearson, tracked ne'er do-wells across the state, towing his trusty horse Charcoal in a trailer for when he needed to hit the trail in pursuit of the miscreants. And I've wondered if real Texans, too, prize this heritage.
You can imagine, then, the delight I felt when George Rodriguez limped onto a darkened stage illuminated only by a wax-dripping candle -- the smell of whose burning also helped set the scene -- scruffy from days of riding the trail, jeans hanging from his hips and stuffed into his no-frills cowboy boots, old-school long-barrel gun strapped to his thigh -- and declared, "So this is where it ends. The Empire Saloon," explaining that the lawman who'd been trailing him for ten years -- "he came out of the womb a ranger" -- was waiting for him in the saloon across the road. This was no swaggering bad guy, but a slumped, weary if still forceful man who had just discovered his trailmates ambushed and gunned down by the ranger after the man he's now confronting, we learn as he suddenly draws on him, betrayed them.
Indeed the marvel of this evening, curated by Steven Alan McGaw, who co-founded SceneShop 15 years ago and who also wrote two of the works on the program, was that with one exception, all the 'monologues' which made up the bulk of the program were full of multiple characters. In 'Bad Men,' notwithstanding my delight in devouring this morsel of the Old West and Rodriguez's pride in the 10 notches on his gun -- they all deserved it, in his view -- no shots are fired and, in fact, what starts out as one of the anecdotes delivered by the hero turns out to be the bulk of the story. You see, at one point, the gunfighter determined to lay down his arms for a brown and blue-eyed woman, the latter being a glass one she got after a Pinkerton man turned store-front preacher beat her and clubbed her husband to death at an early labor rally. (Harper's low-key references to the initial union struggles, as his anti-hero recalls his wonder at them and the hope they promise for a better future not ruled just by capitalists, is much more effective in countering the Koch agenda Perry and any of his Republican cohorts would implement than Nicolas Irion's overly simplistic and didactic rant against Texas prisons, "Freak.") Harper sticks with this tale of the glass-eyed woman and the 'bad man,' bringing it and the uber-story together at the end, when Rodriguez pulls out a note and makes a last request that his interloper send it to the woman, as he gets ready to cross over to the saloon and meet his fate. From one monologue enacted by one person, Harper has created a whole world and, in fact, two different stories.
In Natalie Gaupp's "Faded Love," introduced by a recording of the song (also associated with Patsy Cline) by the legendary Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the interloper for the live actor, Peggy Bott Kirby, is... the whole state of Texas. Gaupp sets it up cleverly. (Several of the plays relied on clever devices, never cloying, although some of the over-labored clever lines in a couple of the works, notably Chris E. Gepp's "We Put the Control in Your Hands," about a bathroom-as-office salesman, and McGaw's tale of ambisextrous college kids, "Bicycle Rides," were.) In "Faded Love," all we know at the beginning is that Kirby, surrounded by packing boxes, is trying to explain to her unseen audience why she's breaking the promise she made him never to leave... The him turns out to be Texas, the promise made when she was ten years old and after being hauled to eight different states by her parents declared, enthralled by among other things her latest home's gorgeous sky-wide sunsets, that this was where she was setting down roots. They could leave if they wanted but she was staying put. By the ardor with which she sings Texas's praises (and phrases -- "Remember the Alamo" is even conjured), this love doesn't seem so faded after all, but love of her husband -- and appreciation for his having honored her pledge to stay in Texas all these years -- and his need to move have won out. Okay, she admits, the wound to Texas may be deeper because of all places, she's adding insult to injury by throwing it over for Oklahoma, but she really doesn't have a choice.
The evening's weakest spot -- apart from the tendency of a couple of the younger actors, David M. Ray (as the bathroom office salesman on the phone pitching an unseen client from his, er, office) and, as the ambisextrous bicycle rider, Irion, to talk too fast and swallow their lines -- was "To Live Forever in Texas." It's author, Christopher Bradley, appears not to have, judging by a major inaccuracy upon which he builds his premise. As evidence that 'nothing lasts in Texas,' as his single character claims, Bradley has him ask the audience if they've ever seen a house older than 50 or 60 (may have been 40 or 50) years in the state. Considering that the raison d'etre of the revitalized historic Fairmount District in which the piece was being performed is renovating homes most of which have been around for closer to 90 years, the error was glaring, and imbued the play with inauthenticity. Given the length of the program -- seven works -- I'd have cut this one (also the only which actually reduced the notion of monologue, seeming more like a stand-up piece) from the line-up as it dilutes both the literary quality and the authentically Texas content. (Note to Bradley: It takes more than a Shiner Boch to make a Texan. Not that I'm above using the local brew as a short-cut to going local.)
Brilliantly expanding the notion of monologue was McGaw's "Trafficking With the Devil or She Drove Me to it," a road trip down a highway to hell, as the opening AC/DC anthem accurately promises. What happens when a good-time boy is lassoed (sorry) into driving his absentee wife's crusty aunt to an antique fair in the Texas High Country? (Or, as the aunt might put it, when a salt of the Earth woman is forced to rely on her grand-niece's undependable drunkard and dope addict of a husband to drive her to the fair after every other remote relative has squirreled out of it?) When the actors are as fearlessly over-the-top as Maggie Allyson and Seth Johnston, and the writing as brilliant and colorful as McGaw's here, hilarity ensues. Allyson in particular exhibits the requisite lack of fear to embarrass herself which can make the difference between tired schtick and side-splitting satire. If I hadn't been watching this in Texas, I would not have believed what to this Lone Star greenhorn seemed an over-the-top accent.
But to get back to my opening point and to what raised this SceneShop evening from more than a hodgepodge assemblage of loosely related plays to an evening of theater: Here, too, McGaw (as programmer as well as playwright) is consistent in expanding the notion of monologue. While there are two actors on the stage for "Trafficking With the Devil or She Drove Me to it," and they do occasionally directly interact, for the most part the story is told by relay through alternating monologues by the two characters. Making an eloge to Godard with another French friend recently, I recalled his remarks several years ago at Cannes (sorry) that being a 'cineaste' doesn't just mean slapping a story on the screen; the art of the cinema itself has to be in evidence, the director using his camera as a pen. What elevated "Lone Star Voices" is that McGaw wasn't content to just throw a few plays before us, but upped the ante by selecting works all but one of which expanded the definition of the monologue, and which sent us out of the theater as smarter theater-goers than we'd been when we came in.