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To anyone familiar with Bryn Magnus's work--whether it's Prayers for the Undoing of Spells, The Weirdly Sisters, or the current Curious Theatre Branch production, Natural Hostages--Avalanch Ranch comes as no surprise. This fantastic western is loaded with mythical characters, preposterous premises, and even the de rigueur Magnus gore.

But perhaps because Magnus wrote the script in collaboration with Shu Shubat, his usual excesses are absent. The story's weird, but the use of bodily organs is kept to a minimum. Shubat, a musician and movement artist, brings with her a sense of logic and dynamics. The combination of their two artistic forces--Shubat also directs--makes for an intriguing and challenging evening of performance.

Presented as a "drum opera," Avalanch Ranch features at its core a handful of musical numbers with spectacular drumming and choreography. The drumming itself is powerful--rhythmic and mind-boggling. Drumsticks fly from holsters like guns drawn at dawn. The players whirl them like batons, toss them in the air, play the tops and sides of the drums. All the while, the band Family Problem chugs out a powerful accompaniment that can vary from the hard-driving "Brain Spill" to Shubat's torchy "Mother of Sorrow." The drums are made to look like cows (trust me), and the players move around them in a precision dance that can suggest love, fighting, uncertainty, carcass carving (honest), an assembly line, and even an alien ship landing.

Avalanch Ranch is the sorry story of the Bonecutter family, all boys and all sprung from their father's belly. Mama, who suffers from a rather strange "blemish" (a jellyeye in the middle of her forehead) recruits the boys to help her make a line of cosmetics tough enough to spackle over her problem. But Mama's recipes require fresh animal organs, so every night the Bonecutter boys do their duty by mutilating the neighboring cattle herds. They bring their treasures back to the ranch and chop and slice, mix and blend Mama's vanishing cream.

Everything's fine until Gad (Magnus), the sensitive son, falls big time for the local orphaned tomboy, Lila Hoop (Shubat). Mama (played only on film, by Beau O'Reilly in drag) isn't too thrilled by this, so she devises a way to get rid of the girl: she turns her into the moon and throws her up in the sky. Gad, heartbroken, tries to go on with his life but can't. Eventually he betrays Lila to his mother, and Lila feels his betrayal, breaks Mama's spell, and confronts the Bonecutter boys as they try to rip her herd of cows apart. In the end, Lila goes off into the sunset on a western-bound train and Gad broods until he becomes a tornado.

The performances in Avalanch Ranch are uniformly excellent. Ben Rayner is terrific as Nail Vastarms Bonecutter, the family ringleader. And Rick Kubes, as the near-autistic Gabrial Dogsong Bonecutter, steals the show nearly every time he's on. Called upon to be both sweet and sexy, Magnus makes Gad's fragile obsession with Lila totally believable.

Shubat also moves with confidence and style, whether dancing around the drums or Rollerblading as the moon, but that's nothing new. A mainstay with the performance/drum groups Tarantula Moon and Long Bone, Shubat has performed to critical acclaim around town in dance and performance showcases for years. The delight in Avalanch Ranch is discovering that she can act. Though she had to hold her own against three very distinctive and energetic males, Shubat turned in quite a show: she was stylish, vulnerable, and wide-ranging. Considering that her presence is considerably softer than the men's, it's to her credit that she never gets overwhelmed.

The story--ridiculous and wonderful at the same time--is moved along not just by the text and music but by Ben Talbot's films, which play constantly in the background. Whether we see hallucinatory graphics, starry skies, or discordant images such as a little girl swimming, the film imagery fits Shubat's direction beautifully. Avalanch Ranch is a lot like an LSD trip--a constant swirl of colorful images and powerful sounds.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tamara Staples.

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