Pig Iron's "Welcome to Yuba City!' at Live Arts Festival (1st review)

Way out West: A finely tuned ridiculousness

Not so wild, but very funny.
Not so wild, but very funny.

Unlike the rest of the world, we Americans largely lack a mythic past to plumb for meaning of our origins and present lives. Aside from Native Americans, our sole resonant mythic history over the last century or two has been that of the West— whether it was the land initially across the Alleghenies that Johnny Appleseed traversed, or later the further expanse of the Far West and its sunset that Ronald Reagan rode into.

The culture and myths of the West have offered us everything from Sam Shepard plays of failed dreams and dysfunctional relations, to the ribaldry of Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles to Wallace Stegner's novels of the region's identity to Tony Hellerman's tales of its eccentric lives and ghostly places. Greek mythology embraced the theater of tragedy and comedy; our West's mythic themes also address issues of freedom, determinism, individuality, reason and faith.

It's easy (as many writers and artists have done) to seize on one dimension or aspect of the mythical West and milk it for all its power and familiarity. In Pig Iron Theatre's extraordinary new comic, physical theater work, Welcome to Yuba City!, this collective of multi-talented performers create a highly-crafted work of delicious buffoonery, brilliant idiocy and philosophical grace that manages to entertain while doing justice to the complexities of our mythic West.

Serious buffoonery

The performers, directed by Quinn Bauriedel, create memorable characters and then slip into other multiple roles as their stories are woven intermittently through the piece. These fast-changing, madcap characters include tall-tale cowboys, a chattering alien, FBI agents on the prowl, a trio of Italian biking tourists, and a Milky Way-chewing, Big Gulp-sipping and philosophizing Native American, among many others.

The ensemble achieved a finely tuned ridiculousness in these and other characters and their stories— a theater of absurd comedy rendered more appealing because the surreal characterizations always contained some tantalizingly serious and philosophical content. When tall tales were told by cowboys, or the Native American offered New Age spiritual utterances, or country-Western songs were sung out of a Ford pickup chassis or from a miked music lounge, you laughed; but you also pondered the serious meaning within the joking and clowning. In this way, Welcome to Yuba City! lampooned the absurdity of America's Western mythic culture while simultaneously displaying respect and affectionate empathy for its values— no easy feat in comic theater of this sort.

Swatting a fly

Deborah Stein's keen writing was critical to this nuanced balance, along with the skilled performers who allowed us to experience these multiple takes on the material. The stellar cast included Hinako Arao, Charlotte Ford, Sarah Sanford, Geoff Sobelle, James Sugg, Alex Torra and Dito Van Reigersberg. Under Bauriedel's direction, this cast demonstrated the appeal of extremely well-honed physical theater that can communicate so much through what appears to be so little, such as the balletic sitting onto a counter stool by raising a leg as if mounting a horse, a recurring gag that didn't lose its humor in repetition, or the in-unison slap on the neck by three cowboys swatting a fly.

Amid this abundance of clowning, slapstick and other physical comedy, Christina Zani— herself a dancer with great comic chops— added inventive choreography that set the cowboys dancing in an arm-locking carousel of motion, and later in a memorable dance involving FBI agents in suits—the latter, clearly post-Agnes De Mille's Rodeo.

Maiko Matsushima's costume designs were so aptly character-specific that we hardly realized who the actors were. Mimi Lien, whose brilliant theater sets have enhanced many a Wilma Theater play, offered a naturalistic set that allowed for plenty of farcical entrances and exits, cactuses that one could stick to during a fist fight, and a large expanse of desert where aliens could be pursued, FBI agents could pursue the pursuers, a car could die on stage, and characters could emerge and disappear into the sunset. Michael Friedman's original songs anchored the play in country-Western music's bridging of dreams and despair. James Clotfelter's lighting offered contrasts of naturalism and its eerie underworld.♦

To read another review by Jim Rutter, click here.

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