(L to R) Carly Mckee as Mary and Geneviève Paré as Red. Photo Credit Jason Ho.
Late: A Cowboy Song
March 12 – 22, 2014
EPCOR Centre Motel Theatre
In love since grade two, Crick and Mary are a young couple that share a birthday and nothing else in common. Crick can spend hours looking at works of art, Mary thinks the more you look the less interesting a painting becomes. Mary clears her head by taking walks and making soup, Crick watches old movies. Mary is a bundle of worries and wonders and Crick finds solid footing in his obsessive love of holidays and a desire for a happy nuclear family. In Late: A Cowboy Song, an unconvincing and messy work directed by Alyssa Bradac, both Crick and Mary get to play out their opposing natures. Crick convinces a pregnant Mary to marry him and raise the baby as husband and wife. Mary allows all her worries and wonders to run full speed when she becomes intensely drawn to Red, a lady cowboy who lives on the outskirts of town.
Late: A Cowboy Song, is the early work of playwright Sarah Ruhl, (whose later plays went on to be recognized by almost every prestigious theatre award around) and is very much the effort of an immature writer. In Mary (Carly McKee) and Crick (Kyall Rakoz), Ruhl gives us a couple so ill-matched and affectionless (save for some creepily awkward post-fight sex) that any belief in their supposed love flies out the window within the first scenes of the play. Not helping matters in this production is the casting of Rakoz as the petulant husband Crick who just wants Mary to see things his way. I know it’s stomping on a minefield to say that certain actors can’t pull off an against-type role such as female playing male, old playing young or white playing black. Especially when acting is all about becoming someone you are not. But with a rather effete delivery and total lack of chemistry with McKee, Rakoz’s Crick (who is supposed to be deeply in love and lust with Mary) reads as gay to the audience. So much so that had the plot not already been known to me, Rakoz’s decent but miscast performance would have led me to assume that Crick’s sexuality was to be the ultimate narrative twist in the play.
But of course its Mary’s attraction to the androgynous Red that is the real story and here Ruhl gives us a few gems. Red (splendidly played with charismatic cool and a confident simplicity by Geneviève Paré) is the opposite of Crick – unshowy and comfortable in her silences. It’s no wonder that Mary is attracted to her. Through Red’s affecting ease and ability to calm Mary’s anxieties, Ruhl gives us many engaging sexually charged but platonic scenes between the two women. As Mary spends more time with Red, she finds it harder to leave her company and becomes perpetually late in returning home to her increasingly jealous/angry husband and infant daughter.
But while the scenes with Red distract from the show’s shortcomings for a while, they come back to bite us as soon as we go back to the Mary and Crick gong show. It’s here that Ruhl’s narrative style can’t figure out whether it wants to be an eccentric comedy or a heavy-handed drama. Director Bradac had the opportunity to favour one style or the other, but instead allowed the play to wean haphazardly between overwrought and quirky. When Mary and Crick’s baby turns out to be a hermaphrodite surgically altered to become a girl, the show takes a distinctly serious turn into gender politics, parental responsibility and metaphoric storytelling. But then a mere seconds later the audience is treated to one of Red’s interstitial musical interludes which has her strumming her guitar singing witty allegorical songs about being blue and having your cactus dry up and die. This style switch continues throughout the play with Crick and Mary taking divergent turns at eccentric humour and big D drama. The result is that neither style feels suitable in this all over the place production.
Visually however, the show looks splendid. At least in Leon Schwesinger’s cowboy-feeling set design of slatted wood constructed as a kitchen, living room and a table that doubles as a restaurant and Red’s place. Schwesinger’s lighting is less successful with its cliché imposition on the action taking literal colour cues from the dialogue. In a whirlwind holiday cycle scene Schwesinger lights the stage pink for Valentine’s Day, green for St. Patrick’s Day, Orange for Halloween etc. In other instances his lighting is overly moody or too bright, unfortunately fitting in with the schizophrenic nature of the entire production.
For the occasional theatre goer – This is a play that operates in metaphors, unspoken longings and quirks. That is when it works at all. You might not be able to put your finger on why the show feels wrong, but you will know that it was wrong for you. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – For those that like to see the work of prominent playwrights before they found their groove, this show will fulfill that desire. There is also great pleasure in seeing Geneviève Paré’s subtle but precise performance. But the messy writing, indecisive direction, miscasting of Crick and just plain all over the place-ness of the production as a whole swiftly negates whatever pleasure can be found. SKIP IT