If Eugene Ionesco, Quentin Tarantino, Lucille Ball and John Ford collaborated on a play, the result might be something like Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, now receiving a hilarious, top-notch production by the HotHouse Theatre Company. The play, by the mysterious and prolific Jane Martin, is an over-the-top riff on the code of the West and the so-called American character. It premiered at last year's Humana Festival in Louisville, but its theme of what constitutes right, wrong, good or bad in a world propelled by violence and insanity is so timely that it could have been written since Sept. 11.
An ex-rodeo rider named Big 8 (Lavonne Byers) has earned a reputation healing broken-up bronc riders. Her current patient, Rob Bob (Nathan Ruyle), is a big, handsome lug who makes Jethro Bodine look bright. Rob Bob has based his life on the films of Hopalong Cassidy and the myth of the American West. Enter the pierced, tattooed She Devil (Brooke Edwards), looking for money from Big 8, whose son has impregnated and then dumped her. Unfortunately, She Devil is being chased by the mad, one-eyed Russian Black Dog, who represents everything foreign and evil. Rob Bob, using everything he's learned from Westerns about how to be good, shoots Black Dog, but the Russian won't stay dead. The various attempts to kill him once and for all make for an increasingly funny second act. With the help of Big 8's sister Shirl (Carolyne Hood), who happens to work at a local slaughterhouse, they try to dispose of the body before it's discovered by Shirl's fiancé, the impotent deputy sheriff Baxter Blue (Mike Crockett). Let's see: slaughterhouse, dead body. Can you guess what happens next? The gore is so excessive it becomes comical, and there's enough stage blood squirting and splattering for a week's worth of performances of Titus Andronicus.
It's great comic writing, but for a long time it seems like it's going nowhere. Then, just as we're wondering whether Martin is testing us to see how far she can go before we see that the emperor has no clothes, we suddenly find ourselves asking: What are we laughing at? Why is dismembering a man funny? Why are we rooting for these characters to succeed in their bloody deed? They seem like good, sympathetic people -- Rob Bob is the epitome of the honest, pure cowboy character -- but they're murderers, liars, thieves, cheats and nonstop procreators. Martin takes our national instincts and attitudes to their extremes, and the result is both hilarious and bloody. The butcher block, at the beginning of the play just a piece of kitchen furniture, becomes an altar of violence and the symbol of our propensity for evil. The American attitude says might makes right, and if we're right, we must be good, too, right?
The HotHouse cast, under the direction of Marty Stanberry, is excellent, navigating the difficult tone of the play that requires inflated performances rooted in realistic characters. Two of the actors, Ruyle and Edwards, are new to St. Louis audiences, and Edwards especially is quite a find. Her She Devil is appealing and annoying at the same time, and her excellent comic timing springs from the character's desperation -- she's not playing comedy but being a character whose actions are funny. Ruyle, who has done fine work as a sound designer at various local theaters (and also serves in that capacity, along with Stanberry, for this show), brings great charm to the pathologically naïve Rob Bob. Hood is a totally believable Shirl; her glee at performing abominable acts is played at just the right pitch, and there's a natural, sisterly feel to her scenes with Byers, who brings a down-to-earth quality to Big 8 that grounds the play. Crockett has several great moments as the clueless deputy, and Torrey Roussin rounds out the cast in the small role of Memphis Donnie Pride.