There's an old theater saying that satire is what closes on Saturday night. "The Great American Western," now playing in downtown Medford's cozy little Randall Theatre, won't close Saturday night, but then it doesn't rise to the level of satire. It's a musical farce that takes aim at some of the conventions of just what the title suggests.
Taking aim is not the same as hitting your targets. And playwright Bruce Guelden is no Annie Oakley.
When a play's signature prop is a pile of horse poop, you're probably in trouble. Especially when the pile is reprised for a second round of lame jokes.
The Lone Ranger (Christopher Horton) and Tonto (Michael Mitchell) are eking out a living on bottle deposits when they stumble into the one-horse town of Dirtwater, Texas, where the Ranger approaches an employment office worker who tells him to show her his booklet, which he mishears as "bullet."
So he whips out a whopper of a silver bullet, and that's one of the show's better gags.
The Ranger becomes sheriff despite being harassed by the piece's villain, J. Edgar Hoover (Rob Pendell), whose name is the cue for a joke about vacuum cleaners. Meanwhile, the man claiming to be Hoover busts Dirtwater Mayor Joe Carboni (David Hagemaier) for fraud (ripping off a federal grant for a hitching post), and the Ranger takes on the mayor's job in addition to his law enforcement duties.
When people have a problem with his mask, the Ranger has a pat cornball speech he launches into ("Although I wear this mask ... "). Cue up a spotlight, patriotic music and chuckles.
Meanwhile, the forces of temperance are in a tizzy over the town saloon. There's Maggie (Toni Holley in a Harpo Marx wig), who wants to dynamite, well, lots of things. There's Garmaine (Debbie Rogers), who, when she isn't picketing the saloon, works at Target. There's Sioux (Julia Chavez), who makes a play for Tonto when she hears he has a big inheritance.
There are songs, which are sung to recorded instrumental tracks a la karaoke. "New York, New York" becomes "Dirtwater, Dirtwater." Hank Williams' "Kah-Liga" becomes "Tonto-o-o-o." Chuck Berry's "Johnnie B. Goode" becomes "Ranger be Good." "Stand by Your Man" becomes gold-digger Sioux's "Get it While You Can."
"Plot" is not an operative word in this world, but the most compelling of the fanciful situations assembled for our pleasure has to do with Little Fester (Tucker Chastine), a crippled young orphan boy adopted by Carboni. He wants to someday walk again.
Will Fester walk? Will Tonto fall into Sioux's clutches? Will the Ranger step in the horse poop? Will the poop pile come back yet again?
There are flashes of humor, and some of the actors have moments. Horton in particular endows his goofy Lone Ranger character with an amusingly exaggerated sort of square earnestness not unlike Dan Akroyd's Sgt. Joe Friday in the old "Dragnet" movie (whose theme from the old Jack Webb TV series actually pops up at one point).
But even at the broad level, where "The Great American Western" operates, it is necessary to organize what's depicted on the stage — no matter how silly — into some kind of structure. A one-sentence answer to the question of what it's about should be a possibility. The thing needs some kind of frame to hang all the silliness on.
Those involved in "The Great American Western" give it the old college try. Live theater in a small town is a labor of love, and aside from Next Stage Rep, which is resident at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, the Randall is the only game in town. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Robin Downward it's done good work and labored hard to earn the support of the community. Programming is a big part of such an effort, and nobody said it was easy.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.