Monday, September 29, 2008

The World Premiere of the Stage Version of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

I Was There and You Weren't #3

The World Premiere of the Stage Version of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
By Michael Dare

The new Seattle production of Even Cowgirls Gets the Blues hits the same cosmic gong of enlightenment the book did, making you laugh and think in equal proportions. It's out of the ballpark, never less than outrageously entertaining while remaining extremely faithful to the anarchic spirit of the original book. This was especially true of the world premiere at the Seattle Center, right there under the Space Needle, next to the 60's amusement park that stands as an everlasting tribute to amusement technology gone by. The attendance of Tom Robbins, inserted into the play - very much as he inserted himself into his novel - brought the whole thing into startling 4D perspective.

The Book-It Repertory Theatre Company accepted an incredibly specific and arduous task when they decided to translate the counterculture lunacy of Robbins' 1976 novel to the stage. He once described his novels as pomegranates, you don't wolf them down like an apple, you savor each morsel, each sentence, the kernels are too strong to take all at once. A Robbins novel deliberately slows you down as he takes unimaginable tangents from whatever you thought the plot was. As soon as the first amoeba dripped down the reader's leg, it either pissed them off or astonished them. Who knew there were so many rules of writing yet to be broken. Robbins took you places no novel had gone before, places impossible for any other medium to follow.

Surely you remember Chapter 100 of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, in which the author simply offers an imaginary toast between you and he, two glasses of champagne, in simple celebration of the fact that together, you've made it all the way to the 100th chapter of this absurd book, in which the fact that it is a novel is merely an excuse to celebrate the written word in all its manifestations, as though Chapter 100 had been waiting in the wings for every novelist to discover but none had the audacity to come right out and allow it to happen, for the novel itself to be self-aware and proud as hell of having made it all the way to triple digits in the chapter department.

Tom Robbins makes you aware of the act of reading while you're reading in order to promote the entire idea of self awareness, to give higher and higher perspectives upon relative absurdities of plot. He never takes anything more seriously than his desire to enlighten, like Penn and Teller, two other magicians who deliberately undermine their own magic tricks just to increase your perspective on reality. If you're reading a Tom Robbins book and someone interrupts asking what the book is about, your answer would be completely different chapter to chapter, page to page, paragraph to paragraph, even sentence to sentence. Cowgirls was completely original and hilarious, always playing tricks on you, never letting you be satisfied by simply sitting back and watching the plot go by, as if the plot itself were an afterthought, something to be gotten back to after tripping out about the nature of the moon.

It took a while for Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to reach the same stylistic conclusions Tom Robbins embraced from the get-go. Vonnegut's early novels were straight-forward sci-fi, and it wasn't until Slaughterhouse Five and the incredible Breakfast of Champions (another cinematic tragedy worthy of the Book-It treatment) that he broke down the fourth wall with the same fervor Germans used to pull down the one in Berlin. Other than Stephen King inserting himself into The Dark Tower, it's a technique few novelists have dared to gamble with, and for good reason. Readers of novels don't really want to be reminded they're reading a book, any more than watchers of movies want to be reminded they're watching a movie. They want to get so involved they forget where they are.

That can't happen with a play. You can't be so involved in a theatrical production you forget you're sitting in a theater watching actors and sets and costumes that are live right in front of you, so this production takes that foregone conclusion and runs with it, constantly talking directly to the audience, letting us know they know we're here, acknowledging right up front that the whole production is for us. The novel does the same thing with words, so Cowgirls turns out to be the perfect book to exploit this theatrical technique to its fullest.

Even so, there are parts of the book that can't possibly be translated into any other medium, amazing literary tricks that can only be appreciated through the written word.

There's a character in the book named the Countess, and you, the reader, presume the Countess to be a woman until suddenly and mysteriously, halfway through the book, the author drops the word "he" in reference to the Countess and the reader goes "huh?" and rereads the entire book again up to that point, realizing a magic trick has just been pulled, that the author cleverly never used the pronouns "he" or "she" in reference to the Countess, that the author was counting on you to assume it was a woman, to force you to face your own sexual prejudices by springing upon you the sad fact that the whole movie you had going on in your head concerning the Countess and their relationship with Sissy Hankshaw was dependent upon the author using the word "their" instead of "his" in endless sentences such as this.

There's really no way to put that in a play or movie. As soon as the character of the Countess is introduced, you're pretty much going to know he's a "he," but in the book that wasn't so.
It's a subject I know way too much about, so as you can guess, I was prepared to hate this version of Cowgirls even more than I detested the film version by Gus Van Sant. Somewhere in the effort to translate Cowgirls to the silver screen, someone decided this heterosexual paean to female sexuality needed a gay director, mysteriously deciding upon the brilliant but utterly humorless Gus Van Sant. You can take all the laughs in every Van Sant Film, fit them in a flea's navel, and still have room for a hard cover copy of Infinite Jest. Van Sant systematically stripped the book of everything whimsical in a misguided attempt to give the whole thing an impossible sense of realism, forgetting there isn't one realistic moment in any of Robbins' magical books.

But this production pulls the rabbit out of the hat, finding just the right quirks of theatricality to match the quirks of the book. If you don't like this production of Cowgirls, chances are it's because you don't like the book in the first place, it's that faithful a reproduction.
As far as I'm concerned, as soon as Cowgirls is an over the top comedy, a flat out farce, everything fits in place. This production, superbly adapted by Jennifer Sue Johnson and directed by Russ Banham, combines a variety of theatrical techniques, including vaudeville, commedia dell'arte, and most importantly, Paul Sill's Story Theater, which allows them to simply read the book to the audience while acting it out.

It's so simple, it's become commonplace, you've seen it a million times, the theatrical device whereby each character narrates their own story and the stories of others on stage, while simultaneously becoming the people they're talking about, going in and out of character at the drop of a hat, much like a Greek Chorus in which each chorus member gets to play the lead once in a while. No one had done it before Paul Sill's Story Theater, which told tales from the Brothers Grimm. It was simply the most economical means of storytelling the stage had ever seen, appearing first at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1971, moving from there to Broadway, where it was just as big a theatrical revelation as Tom's books were literary revelations years later. Ovid's Metamorphosis followed, proving the technique would work with just about anything, even in 1980 in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby where they did the whole book, every character, every chapter, every sub-plot, every nuance, over six hours, seen on two different nights, in Story Theater fashion, just reading the book to you while acting it out.

Following in this classic tradition, this production of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues sets the record straight, letting the story go its goofy and ridiculous way with a style in between commedia dell'arte and cosmic circus, letting us know the universe is a funny place where serious things happen, or a serious place where funny things happen, a quirky point of view with every nuance perfected. Story theater lets them incorporate everything from standard Greek chorus to vaudeville, whatever the story calls for, a comedy with plenty of time to get seriously philosophical in between the yocks. This is just the right way to do Tom Robbins for the stage, and everyone involved should be proud as hell.

What's it about? The nutshell? When you try to boil it all down, you're left with FBI agents, whooping cranes, big thumbs, and the first amoeba, not to mention the nature of time and space and everything in between, but mainly Sissy Hankshaw. She's the spokes-model for a feminine hygiene deodorant spray with phallic thumbs who gets involved with a bunch of cowgirls fighting for the rights of whooping cranes, who teach her that the scent of a woman is nothing to be embarrassed about, indeed, it's one of their finest points, which they have no problem sharing with the world, leading to an incredibly funny nude scene in which all the cowgirls chase off the Countess in horror at the sight of their unscented bushiness.

Two narrators play guitar and violin, the perfect accompaniment, Barbara Lamb and Jo Miller, like Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye in Cat Ballou, telling the story through song, underscoring all the ridiculous events that ensue.

Kate Czajkowski plays Sissy goofy and innocent, not an obvious choice, but the right one, keeping the laughs coming as her big thumbs set her life on the road. The set is an old truckstop, the type hitchhikers get stuck at, with hubcaps and license plates covering the walls, and an ice machine that doubles as a cave for The Chink, played to lunatic perfection by Wesley Rice as a variation on Dr. Pangloss from Candide, a looney philosopher horndog who can't keep his hands off the cowgirls, and who can blame him.

Ellen Barkin would make quite a cowgirl, and so does Hilary Pickles as Bonanza Jellybean, a wacked-out R. Crumb caricature of a character, the cutest button of a cowgirl at the Rubber Rose ranch who plants a smack on Sissy's mouth that changes her life.

The rest of the cast is just right, Brian Thompson a hilarious Countess, and every cowgirl a potential Lucille Ball, and that might seem a strange way to go with it but no, comediennes is precisely what this story needed. They're not really "lesbians," a word that doesn't show up till halfway through, and not in a nice way. Sissy ain't no lesbian, she just can't turn down sex from both the Chink and Bonanza Jellybean, regardless of their stereotypes, they both get her off.
The premiere provided the actual presence of Tom Robbins, who hadn't read the book himself in 33 years, which made it all the more entertaining for him, constantly reminding him of lines he'd forgotten he'd written. Tom appears as a character in the book Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, so seeing him sitting down the row from you when one of the characters says "Hey, who wrote this book?", a moment in which he appeared in the play as himself, very much as he appeared in the book as himself, was a genius moment just for that audience, right then, gone forever, unrepeatable, and I wish you could have been there, but don't let that stop you from seeing it without that moment. If you can see it, see it. If you can't see it, read it.

This production doesn't make the big mistake of the film, turning Robbins' hilarious fantasy lesbians on the range into serious politically correct spokesdykes for the righteous homosexual cause. These cowgirls are all perfectly ludicrous, individual characters that add up to a comic book whole, and a Zapp Comic at that. The play has a lusty and zestful fixation on the female crotch, which could be one reason the book is such a classic, the clearly visceral response the author has towards the commercial exploitation of feminine hygiene, which was just getting started at the end of the '70s, when the airwaves were mysteriously full of ads for different spray products for women, as ubiquitous and strange as the current spate of ads for boner pills for men. Cowgirls is as far away from the guilt ridden gay cowboy angst of Brokeback Mountain as humanly possible, putting the gay back in the word gay, leaving out none of the feminist rhetoric, but coming from these ridiculous characters, right out of a Coen brothers or Tim Burton film, in which TONE is everything.

The Book-It Repertory Theatre is a non-profit organization dedicated to "transforming great literature into great theatre through simple and sensitive production and inspiring its audiences to read." It's been going on for a miraculous 19 years I'm sorry I missed. If they were all as good as this, they're one of the most important theatrical companies in the country, translating hundreds of pieces of untranslatable material through the sieve of the perfect theatrical device for translating just about anything. They've got it down, completely perfected, I can't imagine a book I wouldn't want to see their production of.

Of course I could be wrong. This is the only production I've ever seen from the Book-It Repertory Company. Maybe they do EVERYTHING like this, appropriate or not, and I just happened to catch the one where it fit, in which case their upcoming Moby Dick is going to be very interesting.

"A sense of humor, properly developed, is superior to any religion so far devised."
- Tom Robbins: Jitterbug Perfume -

Playing September 16-October 12, 2008 at the Center House Theatre

Book-It Repertory Theatre

206-216-0877, ext. 100