Review: Late, a Cowboy Song

Last Friday, April 21, faculty, students, and admitted students crowded into Runnals Theater to watch the opening night of Late, A Cowboy Song. The performance traces the lives of Crick and Mary, a couple in Pittsburgh who have supposedly been in love since age eight, but have struggled with their relationship recently. Crick appears alarmingly possessive over Mary, and Mary grows frustrated when Crick can’t seem to keep a job. However, an unplanned pregnancy propels the two into marriage. When Mary runs into her high school classmate Red on the street, and enjoys a cup of coffee with her old friend, the two embark on a friendship that alters both of their lives.

The show was written by award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and Tony Award nominee for best play. Ruhl’s works, including The Clean House and In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play) have cemented her as one of the greatest playwrights of our generation.

“I like to see people speaking ordinary words in strange places, or people speaking extraordinary words in ordinary places,” Ruhl said, as quoted in a New Yorker profile by
John Lahr.

The actors captured the tension between the two main characters, Crick and Mary, extremely well. Many actors played the same characters from scene to scene, each adding their own interpretation to the story and the characters themselves. The set was markedly sparse, allowing the audience’s focus to be on the gestures and actions of the characters. Their conversations were stilted, their gestures awkward and uneven—just as an ill-matched couple would interact. After Mary announces her pregnancy and Crick kneels as she sits in a chair and rests his head against her stomach, the forced intimacy of the moment elicited a cringe from the audience. However, despite the heavy substance of the play, humorous lines interspersed throughout the piece lightened the mood. The play was produced through the conjoined effort of two Theater and Dance classes this spring—an Introduction to Design Course (TD135), taught by professor  Jim Thurston, and Directing (TD281), taught by professor Toby Bercovici. Student directors each worked with teams of two or three actors and one designer. Each director was responsible for staging one scene of the play. As a result, the actors playing Mary, Crick, and Red changed throughout the performance, and sound effects and lighting switched according to the creative vision of the director. At the talk back at the end of the play, the directors and actors asked for feedback from the audience. One director voiced concern that the changes in actors and design style in each scene were confusing and made the play disjointed. However, members of the audience responded that they were able to follow the plot despite the switches, and that the shifts in style and actors worked well with the plot line, as each character developed and changed as the
play progressed.

Thurston and Bercovici offered the courses to give students the rare chance of hands-on experience producing a play, developing a leadership style, and forming and executing their own individual creative visions. “Being a director is a big task,” Bercovici explained in an interview. “They have do research, come into every rehearsal with a plan, imagine all different questions actors may ask during a rehearsal, and develop a good eye for blocking and stage picture,” he said. In class, the students read articles and interviews with directors, created their artistic vision for their scene, and communicated with the other class. Outside of class, the directors spent time working with their actors and designers. Over the course of the last week, the groups came together and spent the nights in the theater layering on the levels of design and watching as the moments they had worked for all semester took place under lights on the stage.

Spanish language assistant Natalia Fernandez-Fraile, a student in the design class, said that the class and end product came together really well. “Everything acquired an united shape in the end. It’s been great to see that happening. It’s a play that made us reflect and exploit our creativity to unsuspected limits,” she said.

In the fall of 2017, the Theater and Dance department will be putting on The Taming of the Shrew as part of the TD264B Applied Performance/Production course. It will be another collaborative process that includes design students as well as actors taking the course for credit.