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Bonanza/The Course of It

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BONANZA

Id/Ego Productions
at Live bait Theater

Remember the episode of Bonanza when Hoss accidentally kills a man? Id/Ego Productions is now doing a bawdy, reverse-gender spoof of this episode. It's well staged and very well acted, though to be honest, whenever I saw that map begin to burn I changed the channel to The Beverly Hillbillies.

However, producer Cynthia Desmond is betting a lot of people will be tickled pink. As she told the Tribune, "It's got everything. . . . Gay audiences love the role reversal, and mainstream audiences who loved the original show want to see the twist." Id/Ego made a splash last summer with its live version of the movie Valley of the Dolls. Now it's boldly jumping in again with a double whammy: live and gender-reversed. Is this art or trendy nonsense?

It's certainly not Othello, The Cherry Orchard, or even Hello, Dolly! But hey--what do you expect from a late-night spoof of a cheesy TV western? Besides, a lot of people like Bonanza--just like a lot of people like The Brady Bunch. And a lot of people like to see women lampoon cheesy icons of masculinity. Don't they?

'Course the plot of this real-live Bonanza ain't much, though it must have sounded like a real zinger to the TV producers. Hoss (Robin Baber) accidentally kills a man. He feels mighty bad about it, even though everybody says he didn't do it on purpose. Enter the bad guy, the dead man's brother, Rhett Twighlight (Dana Block), who wants revenge. While Hoss is out on the Ponderosa range fixing a fence post and mourning, Rhett sneaks up from behind and shoots him in the shoulder.

Fortunately, Hoss's brothers Little Joe (Mary Cross) and Adam (Mary Chaisson) were just coming to check on him. It looks like Hoss might not make it through the night, and the brothers vow to punish whoever shot him. I won't give away the end, but you know Hoss has to be around for next week's episode. Besides, the bad guy always pays.

Director Kate McClanaghan comments on the plot by heightening the manly man characteristics and inserting a number of running gags. Adam keeps making surreptitious passes at Little Joe. Mary (Rick Uecker), who in the original is the sweet girlfriend of the dead man, is now a little too sweet. ("She was my girl," says Little Joe. "Mine too," muses Adam. "I had her once," adds their father Ben. "Me too," echoes the doctor.) Hopsing (Jill Burrichter) provides insightful comments on the Cartwright family life. "Every week! Some new melodrama!" he exclaims. Later he warns Ben, "Three young sons--no leave home, no grow up!"

Desmond apparently founded Id/Ego to provide more roles for women, and this show clearly illustrates that there's no dearth of talented actresses in this town. Block gives a technically perfect spoof of the evil bad guy. The women in the Cartwright family exude a quirky charm playing serious manly men. And Irene White is a hoot as the hotel clerk. But ultimately you have to wonder about the choice of material. Bonanza allows these actresses to show off their technique, but their characters have no soul. These women can't flex their artistic muscles.

But who's kidding who? This isn't art. It's Bonanza. And there have to be a lot of die-hard fans out there.

THE COURSE OF IT

Mettle Theatre
at Heartland Studio Theatre

In her new play, The Course of It, Neena Beber comes much closer than Bonanza ever could to providing meaty, soulful roles for women. But even though her intentions are on the right track, Beber has a problem writing dialogue. And no play, no matter how strong the concept, can survive weak dialogue.

The Course of It is a personal odyssey of sorts--one woman confronting her nemesis. The heroine, Isabel (Kathy Fabian), is a free-spirited twentysomething caught in a destructive love affair with a married man named Ben (Kelly Brant). The affair consumes both of them and destroys Ben's relationship with his wife, Katha (Deanna Leigh Schreiber). Isabel's story is told in a series of vignettes interspersed with a Jungian fairy tale told by Lisa Schrag, who plays the harp between scenes.

At its best this play has an enticing mystical yet urban air. At its worst it's boring. Beber writes the kind of dialogue that exists in the head of someone obsessing about a love affair: it's easy to write because you control the responses of all the characters. "I missed you. I need you back," Isabel tells Ben. "I missed you so much," he responds, and takes her in his arms. Who hasn't imagined this scene?

This production does have some promising elements. Mark Sweeney's painted set goes a long way toward creating the mystical/urban feeling. And Schrag's magical tale about a woman who makes a soup first of herself and then of her lover is charming--in fact, it has a greater dramatic impact than the rest of the play.

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