Theater: One Joke

AlterTheater’s ‘Cow Pie Bingo’ struggles

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In AlterTheater’s ‘Cow Pie Bingo,’ the themes of love and capitalism are explored. Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com.

As longtime readers of this column may be aware, I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of San Rafael’s AlterTheater since its inception in 2004. While careful to remain objective in judging production quality, I’ve admired the plucky determination of founding artistic director Jeanette Harrison and her associates to produce minimum-budget shows in empty Fourth Street storefronts, using mainly community actors who borrow their “costumes” from bedroom closets and work with minimal scenic elements (sets, lighting, props). Nobody—neither staff nor performers—was paid very much, if anything. They worked out of love for the art form and the hope that ultimately this little underfunded company could become an influential source of new work.

Progress has been steady. The company signed on to a low-tier Equity contract that allows use of professional actors. Improved productions have resulted in several awards from Bay Area arts organizations. Grants were received. Performances were occasionally mounted in American Conservatory Theater’s (A.C.T.) The Costume Shop performance space in San Francisco, offering wider audience exposure. Most importantly, a new play development program (AlterLab) for promising writers was established and some of the scripts incubated by it have had successful launches into the wider theater world.

At each step the quality bar has risen, usually with positive results. As might be expected, however, there have been occasional hiccups. The latest, Larissa FastHorse’s Cow Pie Bingo, is currently on view in a vacant San Rafael storefront near the west end of the Fourth Street business district.

It’s hard to find much to admire in this hard-to-follow, one-joke comedy developed by FastHorse during her recent company residency. The title tells you just about everything you need to know about her subject. Although “cow pie bingo” is still used as a charity fundraiser at county fairs and other celebrations in rural areas throughout the country, the play’s unspecified setting is probably South Dakota, where the writer of Lakota Native American descent grew up. The idea is to mark out a field in squares like a bingo sheet and then introduce a cow to wander about munching whatever there is to munch, passing gas along the way (as cows are wont to do) and eventually pooping in one of the squares. Bets are placed by onlookers and the cash prize is divided between the winner and a designated charity.

There you have the play’s main source of humor—watching Gwen Loeb as a bovine named Maybelle, snorting, chewing her cud and farting as she meanders about a performance space that is delimited by a couple of haybales and a pair of sky blue flats. In a published interview, FastHorse reveals that in real life the game can take four-to-six hours; on stage it’s only 90 uninterrupted minutes, but that’s more than enough for the joke to wear thin, despite Loeb’s endearing performance.

In fairness, FastHorse does introduce other issues. The capitalist system is knocked for a threatened closure of the event because of money owed. There is an impassioned plea for humans to treat animals humanely, and when Maybelle poops on cue to save the day after being trained to do her duty when she reaches a certain numbered square, the question is raised about whether cheating for a good cause is moral.

These matters might have had greater impact if the production values were higher. This particular AlterTheater storefront is an echo chamber that makes much of the rapidly delivered dialogue hard to understand. Perhaps it was the new space, but I also had the feeling that although the cast of usually dependable actors was seasoned by a two-week run at The Costume Shop prior to moving to Marin, the performance on opening night needed more rehearsal to achieve the needed focus.

In closing, I have to say that the small audience seemed to enjoy what seemed to be a send-up of American country rustics. They certainly can draw laughter, but it should be remembered that these were among the “deplorables” who were mocked by a certain candidate in last year’s presidential election. She lost.

NOW PLAYING: AlterTheater’s Cow Pie Bingo runs through February 18 at 1344 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454-2787; altertheater.org.

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