The gender-nebula

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 02.11.2012

To begin at the beginning… Mary and Crick fell in love in second grade and they have been together ever since. When Mary falls pregnant, they marry and Crick gets a job as a museum guard. Meanwhile, his wife starts seeing more and more of Red, a former schoolmate of theirs who has turned into a strong, independent woman and lives as a cowboy outside the city limits. Soon her enigmatic presence will make Mary question the routines of family life and the expectations that pigeonhole us. The fact that the baby is born intersexed adds to Mary’s confusion and to her rejection of gender roles.
Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song thus juxtaposes two completely different worlds: a small claustrophobic Philadelphia flat crammed full of stuff is set against the wild open spaces of what feels like the American West. Anouk Schiltz has designed a stage that creates these two parallel worlds with beautifully simple means. The silhouette that reveals itself to be a monumental horse after a curtain falls echoes the fabulous puppets used in War Horse. At one point it even becomes part of the Christmas decorations thanks to the many little lights scattered all over it.
Short scenes succeed each other. Mary (an extremely moving and persuasive Jenny Beacraft) is clearly torn between marital loyalty and the urge to build up her self-esteem. Her attention-seeking husband Crick (an excellent Jules Werner) and his neediness never leave her alone as he does not shrink from spying on her, invariably uncovering the lies she resorts to. On the other hand, there is Red, who feels closer to horses than people. Her monosyllabic, self-contained world looks alluring and adventurous, yet asks for an inner strength Mary has never been taught to acquire.
Whereas the duel between husband and wife turned out to be absolutely shattering, Red (Claire Thill) was disappointing at times. Was it first-night nerves? Or was she at an unfair disadvantage, having to address the audience from very far back? Too often the play lost some of its edge when she came on – except for that one splendid horse scene – which was both funny and so liberating!
Yet, all in all, Linda Bonvini, the director, has done a very good job. Her staging respects the rhythm of the scenes and the acceleration of time at the heart of the play, a few simple props summing up the ever crazier consumer culture we are engulfed in. There seems to always be some celebration or holiday to look forward to. Cue: Halloween swiftly followed by Christmas (with St Nicholas Day thrown in as a special treat for some of us Europeans!) The music (composed by Claude Schlim) and the sound effects cleverly punctuate the various moments without ever becoming intrusive.
Sarah Ruhl’s sour-sweet portrait of a marriage refuses to make any sweeping statements. The sparse writing, which is full of zest and poignancy, sheds light on things that might go wrong in our lives. As a result, the play gradually edges away from the charming, funny bits that were there at the beginning until angst and anger take over. Love (or as Prince Charles replied so famously on the day of his engagement when asked if he was in love with Diana: “Whatever love means…”) is increasingly under threat from possessiveness, insecurity and jealousy….
In fact, cynics might warn you that marrying your very first love has become trickier than ever since many of us live so much longer. What used to be seen as a most romantic scenario has turned into something of a gamble in the 21st century.

Late: A Cowboy Song, TNL, November 6 and 7;
Janine Goedert
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