Throw your preconceived notions about gender aside and ride your own exasperated mule (if you are so lucky as to possess one) to Studio 5 at the Walnut Street Theatre for Quince Productions’ new show, RODEO. Their Wild-West-themed play will have you giggling at wordplay and grimacing at bad poetry and exaggerated accents as you follow the cast through a Philip Dawkins script laden with laughing out loud moments.
RODEO follows the story of Cody (Jenna Pinchbeck) a stunning cowgirl with lovely long locks, desperate to be taken seriously in a male-dominated culture. Along with her “persnickety” mule (the terribly funny Dexter Anderson), Cody sets out to earn the money necessary to open a school for misunderstood cowgirls. To do so, she must pass as a man (in comes a mustache and a quick tuck-up of her hair) to compete against handsome longtime rodeo champion Cab Lanford (Michael E. Manley) to win the prize money. Meanwhile, aptly named villain Crusty Sidetrick (the deliciously malicious Thomas-Robert Irvin) attempts to thwart Cody’s efforts, sabotage the young Cab, and take the prize money for himself.
Love stories unfold, animal sidekicks fight discrimination, and fake mustaches make the rounds. Dressed as a man, the multi-faceted Katherine Perry sets the tone for this vaudevillian show, reining in the audience with high-energy and warbling western songs (arranged by Ben Deane) as Tunester, the the cardboard banjo–toting narrator. As another male character played by a female actor—the clueless, but lovable sheriff/judge/barkeep (trust me, it’s not as confusing as it sounds)—Nadiya Jackson uses his/her incredible stage presence and booming masculine voice to keep the audience rolling in their chairs.
The show includes a number of standout scenes. In one, a kidnapping takes place during a complex square-dance carefully choreographed by Calvin Atkinson. In another, an ill-mannered horse named Reckless (the oh-so-moody Ben Deivert) proposes to Turncoat (the sweet Madalyn St. John), a mute horse that eventually finds her voice. And in the unusual opening scene, a large cardboard hawk puppet captures and flies away with a small cardboard prairie dog in a silent, interpretive-dance style scene that left audience members eager to find out what RODEO had in store for them.
The costumes and sets are kept simple and minimalistic, with charming props by costume designer Admiral Grey and cleverly designed backdrops by set designer Anthony Palumbo. The stage, beautifully lit by warm tones with the help of John Allerheiligen, helps transport the audience to the great American Wild West.
RODEO marks a nice departure from the weighty and thought-provoking issues featured in many Quince shows, many of which focus on gender roles, discrimination, and love and unrequited love. Dawkins’s story relies on and only slightly tweaks somewhat tired plot lines. However, the clever script and a lively and engaging cast keep audience members hooked.
In a Phindie interview about Rodeo, “It’s Family Friendly But It Still Has Hot Cowboys,” Quince artistic director Rich Rubin noted that he chose the script for the rich use of language, and it shows. With everything from Shakespeare to Fight Club being referenced, there is a little something for people of all ages.The one-hour production wastes no time, keeping the action moving along at a quick clip that felt appropriate for a comic performance and leaves the audience satisfied and smiling.
[Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5, 825 Walnut Street] April 7-23, 2016; quinceproductions.com.
Note: The opening night performance ended with an unexpectedly somber, yet uplifting note. After enthusiastic applause, director Rubin addressed the audience, letting us know that something unexpected had happened before opening night: one of the actors had to take an overnight bus to Boston to attend the wake of his grandfather, the funeral, and the burial, before flying back to Philadelphia, just in time for the premiere. Rubin welled up, as did many audience members who gave the actor a long and deeply-felt round of applause.