Part myth-making, part absurdist exercise, part political allegory and part youthful hell-raising, The Eclipse of Lawry, by Gwylym Cano, is fun, stimulating theater. It's hard to follow some of the dialogue, since the repartee rips rather fast and is complicated by a Texas drawl meant to underscore the cowboy theme. But racing to keep up seems to be part of the intended adrenaline rush anyway, and what the characters are is just as important as anything they say.
The story is a weird kind of hero's journey. A cowboy named Humphrey (Cano himself, in an exuberant, magical performance) wants nothing less than the moon, so he deserts his companions, Dogwood and Jezebel, and heads on out to find it. He consults a weathermaker named Mimosa, a smart-aleck, buxom-beauty goddess who's very human despite her mythic stature. Eventually he finds a moon-maker, who, though she's no longer engaged in making moons, helps him get what he really wants (which is slightly different from what he thinks he wants). Meanwhile, his friends pursue him, wanting their own private moon, too, and his one antagonist, Lawry, scorns and demeans him and finally engages him in a showdown. There are no real guns here, just a gunfight of the imagination staged before an angelic motorcycle gang member named Betsy (as in "heavens to...") who tries to disarm the guys. But the thing about the imagination is, you can just imagine another gun.
A latter-day Chicano Christ figure, Humphrey endures a wilderness experience that's fraught with challenges. But he's in no real danger, either--that will come in the next play (not yet finished), when Cano continues his trilogy. But in this play, the 24-year-old Cano is engaged in creating a new mythology, a sort of leftist Zen/Christian thing with a Western flavor. Cowboys are property-free nomads and the heroes of American mythology. So Cano rethinks them for us, making them both more lovable and less self-sufficient. Then he introduces labor leader Cesar Chavez as a superhero figure, along with Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, Cano creates a vocabulary of gestures, as he calls it, to underscore the fantastic nature of the piece and to make new metaphors for peace and community.
Cano hails from East Los Angeles, but he and his mother moved to the San Joaquin Valley when he was still young, and he spent time traveling back and forth between parents. Moving from the city to the country and back again gave him an appreciation of the land, and the wide-open spaces do impinge on the little stage of the Dorie Theater. Cano even lived in Los Banos, one of the California locations Humphrey visits on his quest. But Cano says he had to go to L.A. to hear about Chavez; the press in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, he says, kept a tight lid on the doings of the union leader.
Chavez is very important to Cano, and so is the theater. Cano has worked with El Centro Su Teatro since he came to Denver two years ago, fresh out of the Yale Drama School. He wrote Eclipse back in New Haven as a freshman, and when the drama school produced it, he became the youngest playwright and the first Chicano ever to have a play produced there.
The style in Eclipse is wild and woolly--a dab of Brecht, a pinch of Freud, a handful of surrealism and a cup of Marx Brothers craziness in a rich ethnic broth that's politically piquant ("Democracy is a great idea. We should try it sometime," says Cano). All the characters are archetypes, but they're also flawed, funny people, and the actors are each and all terrific.
Jezebel (played the night I saw it by Shelly Bordas with breakneck speed and adorable flakiness) is an androgynous character who has given up everything (including her breasts) to become a cowboy. Dogwood (Michael Katt is hilarious and wonderfully assured) is a classic fool--not too bright but nevertheless profound. Mimosa (Amy Luna works in big gestures and with a confident earthiness) is goddess, seductress or critic, depending on the circumstances. Humphrey is a dreamer--the man who follows his heart--while narrator/antagonist Lawry (a sharp, glittering performance by R. Tobias Smith) is the realist whose influence shapes the ending of the play, where Humphrey's dream shifts from the personal to the communal.
Humphrey's quest eventually leads him around to his own beginnings, and he recognizes, for the first time, what matters. So, too, do his friends, who, flawed as they are, rise to the occasion of community in a final exquisite metaphor. By evening's end, Cano's mythos is as satisfying as it is timely and smart--and as poignant as it is occasionally goofy.
The Eclipse of Lawry, through June 5 at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3800.
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