Reviewed by Terry Morgan
Theatre of NOTE
Through January 10
Even a fan of classic Westerns would have to admit that occasionally they’re a bit dramatically overripe, full of unregenerate machismo and with views on race and sex that are best kept in their respective eras. Of course these themes have been parodied before, notably in Blazing Saddles, but theatre needed its turn, and Bill Robens has provided it with the witty and knowing Rio Hondo, currently in its world premiere at Theatre of NOTE. Director Jaime Robledo brings a stylish panache to the show, which benefits from a comedically inspired ensemble.
Ex-marshal Bert McGraw (Darrett Sanders) has returned to the Western town of Hondo. He gave up marshaling after a tragic accident and is now trying unsuccessfully to be a pacifist. He visits his sister-in-law Clementine (Alina Phelan) at the family farm, discovering to his dismay that she may lose the land to the railroad. She’s being threatened by corrupt sheriff Diego Sanchez (Phinneas Kiyomura) and his men, and the assistance of her blind gunfighter sister Iris (Kirsten Vangsness) won’t be enough. Bert will need to give up his tenuous oath of nonviolence to save the day.
Sanders delivers a terrific deadpan performance in the style of the stoic John Wayne-type Western hero, with his character memorably described as “the world’s most incompetent pacifist,” given that he’s killing people right and left. Kiyomura is clearly having a ball as Sanchez, and his relish for the role translates into a very funny performance. Phelan is good as the plucky homesteader who places an almost religious significance to the value of beef. The always entertaining Vangsness seems underutilized in the smaller role of Iris.
Gene Michael Barrera is great as the “Pilipino” author and ranch hand Ding-Ding, taking the typically generic role of an Asian man in a Western and revealing hidden depths. Grace Eboigbe is hilarious as Rosarita the local madam — an employer so tough she won’t let an extremely pregnant hooker take time off the job. And Nicholas S. Williams stands out among a strong ensemble as the wannabe gunfighter Flapjack, who becomes distracted by homoerotic feelings for another cowboy.
Director Robledo, who has a genius for creative staging, does not disappoint here. His stagecoach sequence, wherein McGraw jumps onto a moving vehicle, fights with several thugs and ultimately slides under the coach Indiana Jones style, is a tour de force.
Another bit, involving cattle branding, is probably the biggest laugh in the show, and a moment depicting a long fall down a mine shaft is a simple but perfect visual. Robens’ play is not deep or weighted with the serious deconstruction of Western tropes. It’s just trying to be funny, and in that it succeeds admirably.
Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga, Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Sun. 7 p.m.; Extended through January 10. (323) 856-8611. www.theatreofnote.com; Running time approximately 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.