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On Stage: training for the big fight


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She's putting up a fight, no mistake about it. "I'm here to marry the mayor!" Harriet protests indignantly as two prostitutes carry her over to the rough wooden bedstead. "You better leave me alone!" Instead they throw her facedown onto the bed and proceed to strip her of her fashionable traveling clothes, right down to her crinolines and corset. "You think we don't got enough grind and grit?" snaps Sally. "Well, we do!" Sally rolls the furious girl over and punches her in the stomach. Nearly naked, Harriet doubles up in pain as May Mountains bites her ear.

Suddenly the actress playing Harriet breaks away, sliding off the end of the bed and peering out into the darkened theater. "Omms, this isn't right," she says to fight director Stephen Ommerle. "Since Sara's not really biting my ear, I don't know when she's doing it and I can't react to it." Ommerle mulls over the problem, then someone suggests, "What if Sara grabs her ear first, and then does the bite?" Ommerle considers the idea and shrugs. "Yeah, that sounds good. Run it and let's see how it looks."

The three women start the fight sequence again, but Harriet lets out a bloodcurdling shriek at the mere touch of May's fingers--the teeth are still a good five inches away. Both actresses promise to practice the scene.

Yuba City, an original play by Michael Sokoloff, is in rehearsal at the National Pastime Theater, a rough performance space carved out of a former Uptown speakeasy. The rehearsal is being overseen by director Larry Bryan, who's also the theater's artistic director and a former fight choreographer and stunt fighter. Ommerle is also an experienced stunt fighter, and Sokoloff is an officer in the Society of American Fight Directors. One wonders if creative disagreements will be settled with flying bottles and smashed chairs.

"I was performing with a cowboy stunt show one summer in Virginia," says Bryan. "We watched a lot of western movies that season, and there was one I really wanted to do in a stage version. So last year I started a copyright search, and we began filming in Arizona. From the beginning I wanted to incorporate film into this production. I wanted to bring that scope and that space into the theater. But the script turned out to be unavailable.

"So there we were in mid-June, with all this photo footage, a group of actors really excited about doing a western--and no script. I called Michael Sokoloff--we've done two of his plays before--and said, 'We're scheduled to start rehearsing next month. Can you give us something by then?' He usually doesn't write this fast, but I brought him our film, everybody's resumes, and for three days we kicked around ideas. By the time I left I had an outline. Twelve days later he sent us a first draft.

It was exactly what we'd talked about, custom-tailored for this cast."

Sokoloff's story documents the dirty way the west was won, with the mayor of a corrupt mining camp scheming to make his little fiefdom as big as Yuba City. Though the heroes and villains spend a good deal of the play in armed combat, the violence is less the blood-spurting brutality of Sam Peckinpah than the highly stylized barroom brawls of classic westerns.

Onstage the actors are engaged in a slightly comic three-on-one scuffle that Ommerle calls the "Moliere and Curly Fight."

"I like a very physical play," says Bryan, "with people fighting for good reasons--fighting for their lives, fighting for their dreams, fighting to protect what they have. I think that struggle is still a part of our lives today, but the western setting permits the characters to fight in a savage and desperate way."

The final shoot-out is over. This time Ommerle is a participant, playing the severely wounded sheriff; he lies on the floor while two men argue over who will have the pleasure of killing him. One of them has allowed his gun to stray from its target; Ommerle reaches up and pulls the barrel down into the proper position, grinning at the gunman's surprise. Across the stage a bullet-riddled Harriet has met her sorry end.

"Omms," she demands, "what happens to my gun? Why would I lose my gun?"

"Maybe you got shot in the shoulder crawling across the floor," somebody ventures.

"But I've been getting shot in the leg!"

Yuba City opens at 8 PM this Wednesday at National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway; admission is $6. The show's regular run starts August 29, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 3 PM; tickets are $12 to $15 (on Thursdays, actors with a head shot and resume are admitted free). Call 773-327-7077.

--Mary Shen Barnidge

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still and Larry Bryan photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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