Bowlegged cowboys seek purpose of life in fantastical 'Best Western'

August 08, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

"Best Western," a wonderfully entertaining sendup of the old macho cowboy movies, being staged by the Bowman Ensemble, is more than a play. It is an experience.

Written by local playwright Matt Ramsay, this sweeping outdoor epic (with a cast of 33 colorful characters) is a worthy entry in the theater-of-the-absurd genre. It overflows with illuminating fantastical language and takes the audience on a wild, wild ride into the psychedelic regions of the imagination.

It is also a philosophical framework (with mythological aspects) for Ramsay's serious concerns about today's sociological and environmental ills. There are even original songs (lyrics by Ramsay and music by Joe Brady) sung in broadly funny western twang.

In the rustic atmosphere of a dusty old Western town, all the stock characters are searching for their particular dream of the -- "unknown secret" (the purpose of life).

Tough gunslingers walk bowlegged through the streets as the town folk wrangle among themselves. Then a dark, mysterious stranger comes into their midst and starts shooting up the town. The gunman is the nemesis of all, the killer of dreams. Coldblooded, without a conscience, he is the metaphor for the dark side of life and the catalyst for future tragedy.

As the characters move into the vast, dry Western wasteland still seeking the unknown secret, they encounter a series of bizarre beings who change their lives. There are no Indians in this epic, the point being the white man has taken all from them. The playwright has saved this reference for a weird late scene in which an Indian comedian turns out to be a big, bad joke. But he has his revenge.

Ramsay has a slick way of blending the incongruous with the implausible. Corny jokes cut from the stereotype cloth of old movies are so deliberately bad they are funny. Outstanding physical comedy and lyrical dialogue sprinkled liberally with clever alliterations mark this interesting piece.

On the other side of the coin, the script has to be tightened. There are too many characters and no main protagonist to do battle with the antagonist. A few characters are overdeveloped and some not enough. A lot of the dialogue is redundant. Ramsay is trying to say too much.

Some of the actors need to project their characters more strongly: Catherine Freedman as the Barbary Coast woman, Geoffrey Harris as the Mountain Man, Diane Signiski as Gladyse Gladden.

Outstanding performances are given by: David Caltrider as the Bad Guy, Bradford F. Cover as an Elizabethan-speaking Top Hand, Stephen Shaffer as the grocer, Timothy Thilleman as Old Barney, Joe Brady as the sheriff, Joey Scherr as the nefarious senator, Karen A. Bishop as the mystical Sky Monk and Michael A. Stebbins as Johnny Indian.

C. Russell Muth and Joe Brady have done a fine job of collaborating on the direction and choreography. "Best Western" continues on the grounds of the Child's Memorial of McDonogh School in Owings Mills through tomorrow.

*

The Spotlighters Theatre is presenting "Outside the Norm" by Gregory Jenkins, the sixth entry in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, through Aug. 25. The comedy deals with the frustrations of an unemployed copywriter. The play is generally amusing in the first act (too much obvious humor) but completely bogs down in the second act which neatly resolves all his problems without any conflict or interesting situation.

Barry Price is fairly believable as Norm but the actor is not nearly frantic or neurotic enough in this mercurial comedy role. The other actors (Maria Diaz, Marilyn Kemper, Nick Psaltos, Ginny Parrish, Branch Warfield) do not stand a chance because their characters are so repetitious. Nothing develops here.

*

Worth mentioning: the superb Totem Pole Playhouse Fayettesville, Pa.) production of "Angel Street" that concluded last Sunday. This top professional Equity operation is owned and managed by Baltimorean Carl Schurr.

Popular Baltimore actor Will Love is featured in the current fine production of "On Golden Pond" which continues through Aug. 18. Love and another Baltimorean, Paul DeBoy, star in the final production, "Murder at the Howard Johnson's," Aug. 20-Sept. 1.

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