Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Cow Pie Bingo
In case you hadn't heard, Cow Pie (sometimes Cow Pattie) Bingo is a real thing, a fundraising game involving marked off squares on a field or in a stadium, and one or more cows let loose to "drop one" in one of the squares. Whoever placed their bet on that number wins a small amount, and the rest goes to a designated charity.
FastHorse's play introduces us to three small-time bingo runners attached to a state fair, whose lives and finances revolve around promoting and supervising the game. There's Harley (Nick Moore), who seems to love the game a little too much, pinning all his hopes and dreams on its success; Kelly (Cathleen Riddley), who has made a side gig out of training her two very smart pigs to dance; and Lou (Renee Rogoff), the boss, responsible for the cash register and bringing in the betting patrons, as well as distributing the winnings to the charity.
But of course the routine begins to unravel when Lou lets on that the game isn't making a profit anymore, and things begin to get grim with talk of selling off the livestock. And of course there's Maybelle the cow (Gwen Loeb), a cud-chewing, affectionate, hoof-stomping and snorting "old girl" who is responsible for pooping somewhere on the bingo grid, and who may not be as reliable as she once was.
Complications pile on with the appearance of Scout (Luisa Frasconi), a somewhat dysfunctional but attractive 4-H animal judge, who rattles Harley's complacency and wakes him to new ideas and possibilities; it could be said he does the same for Scout, although theirs is a rather oblique beginning, and an even quirkier middle. The plot thickens as Lou falls deeper in debt and Harley gets in dutch, and Kelly steps in the poo, and Scoutwell, Scout is just herself and that's trouble enough. When Maybelle gets stressed out, the whole thing threatens to implode.
Somewhere in there are a few earnest messages about animal-human bonding, humane care of animals, and perhaps even following one's dreams. But those never detract from the silliness, fun, and overall engagement factor.
The cast is consistently strong, and actors are well matched to their roles. Moore's country nerd never veers into pathetic, and endears us to his hapless scheming. Riddley breathes life into a relatively small role, getting us to root for her and her pigs, and Rogoff creates a likable villain. Loeb creates an unforgettable Maybelle, a true scene-stealing, eye-rolling, tail-switching, and utterly lovable creature. Frasconi's quirky acting style lends itself well to the mercurial nature of Scout, but frequent sudden shouting wears down the eccentricity and merely becomes annoying; she's more successful when toning down the quirkiness in favor of believability.
FastHorse possesses a highly original voice, a fondness for off-the-wall situations, and a great ear for idiosyncratic dialogue and characters. Her first play for AlterTheater, Landless, ran to excellent reviews, displaying the same ingenuity, wonderful moments, and bursts of powerful writing. Cow Pie Bingo goes on too long in the last third, as if resolution eludes it; and the relationship between Harley and Scout could use some beefing up in the early days, to supply more justification for their attraction. But there's a lot of potential here, and one hopes FastHorse will give it another go before publication.
Scenic design is minimalism itself, with a few hay bales and a couple of big-sky backdrops, but Margaret Belton and Jen Brault have given us all we need. Costumes by Natalie Barshow happily evoke some country and/or farm region without overkill, and Maybelle's costume is a genuine delight. Sound by Gerry Grosz and lights by Robin Dolan are simple but effective. Director Jeanette Harrison deals well with the small space and L-shaped house, and has guided her ensemble with a sure hand. Less shouting in the small hall would have been welcomed.
For a rare and entertaining treat, enjoy the emerging playwright's voice in Cow Pie Bingo, and say hi to Maybelle. And watch where you step.
Cow Pie Bingo, presented by AlterTheater through February 18, 2018, at 1344 Fourth Street, San Rafael CA. Tickets $32.00 can be purchased online at https://www.altertheater.org or by phone at 415-454-2787.