One of the chief joys of going to a Fringe Festival performance is the bare bones aspect. Sitting in the hot upstairs of a townhouse shell, a minimal set against peeling plaster and paint, no frills, no pyrotechnics, just actors and text battling it out for your attention. I love it. And when the acting is top-notch, there is no better joy.
“Riding the Bull” is a morality play about a rodeo clown whose naivete and greed bring about his downfall in aptly named Godsburg, Texas. Um, wait. A rodeo clown? Yes, this is a dark comedy complete with a banjo player, accents worthy of “Deadwood,” and even Elvis himself. Oh, and Jesus gets molested. Sorry. It’s Fringe, leave your squeamishness at the door!
Jason McCool is GL Mitchell, a clueless rodeo clown with an Oedipal complex a mile high and a repulsion/attraction to Lyza, played by Kate Debelack with a lusty grip on life and a habit for rearranging nativity figures into orgiastic configurations. Oh, she also can predict the winning rodeo cowboy on orgasm. All GL wants is to make his Mama happy, and all Mama wants is Elvis. The real one, who’s been hiding out in an insane asylum. Naturally.
The play is driven by the alternating brittle and tender interchanges between the two actors, as they come together and drift apart in twisted banter. McCool nails the sad naivete of a man sinking into greed and amorality without ever losing his boyish charm. You can’t decide whether to smack him or pinch his cheeks. Debelack’s rise (or fall, depending on how you look at it) from irreligious wench to sacrificing saint has a rough-edged beauty – she even makes dressing up a cow believable and poignant. Their interaction is riveting, and playwright August Schulenburg’s dialogue is like taking Hepburn & Tracy through the looking glass.
I would’ve preferred the banjo-plucking interludes of Curtis Eller to have progressed from comedy to tragedy along with those two, but the compositions don’t integrate as well as they could. There’s a rawness to Eller that’s hypnotic, but with no apparent purpose to his appearances they make for a jarring distraction. The play itself loses its way a bit as the characters fall from grace – there’s a lot stuffed in here philosophically on their way down – but it still makes for a thought-provoking journey.
Thanks to the talent onstage, I barely noticed the heat or the ambient noise halfway through. Sure there’s sweating going on, but it’s raw and vibrant theater. Two performances left. Definitely worth it.
“Riding the Bull”
as part of the 2009 Capital Fringe Festival
Saturday July 18 at 11am
Saturday July 25 at 6:45pm
The Bodega at the Trading Post
1013 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001