Katherine Martin & Gerry Rose in Coyote Ugly. Photo courtesy The Alley Theater.
By Lynn Siefert
Directed by J. Barrett Cooper
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
After a two-year stint in California, J Barrett Cooper’s directorial touch has returned to Louisville stages. The founder of Savage Rose Classical Theatre here turns his attention to material that is world away from the period pieces that dominated his work in the last ten years. Coyote Ugly is a brutal, unstinting journey into the darkest of hearts.
The Pewsey’s are desert dwellers, rough as cobs and unapologetic about their lack of civility. The paterfamilias, Red (Gerry Rose) exults in his luck in being given an obviously stolen car to his wife, Andreas (Kate Bringardner), while their feral 12-year-old daughter, Scarlet (Katherine Martin) establishes a very adult, independent, frame-of-mind, even while humping her daddy’s leg. When adult son, Dowd (Bob Singleton) brings his wife, Penny (Jennifer Riddle) to visit the home he left a dozen years before, it is an uneasy reunion.
The phrase “coyote ugly” is intended to designate a particularly nasty ugliness that reaches into the soul of a character. It is made abundantly clear that the Pewsey’s are capable of anything, with few, if any moral or societal boundaries. Incest is a crucial component right from the start, and the action of the play crosses so many lines that the audience becomes somewhat inured to the shock value of the story, so that it becomes easy to laugh at the sad state of affairs in this bleak, arid narrative. There is plenty of confrontation and violence, all staged with a visceral kick by director Cooper.
Yet Lynn Siefert’s play never rises to the heights to which it aspires. For me it felt derivative of other, far superior writers, most notably the late, great Sam Shepard. The extreme dysfuntionality of a family existing so far out on the fringes of society is nothing new, and Siefert never gives us a reason to invest in these characters outside of the question of their survival within the narrative, underscored by the immediacy of performance.
Perhaps that is enough, for a well-chosen cast plays the devil out of this thing, delighting in the unfettered vulgarity and raw emotions with enviable commitment. Jennifer Riddle brings pitiable vulnerability to the victimized outsider, Penny, and Bob Singelton charts the breakdown of Dowd’s normalized, middle class façade and return to his elemental, Pewsey self, with skill. Kate Bringardner and Gerry Rose push Red and Andrea dangerously close to parody, but exert just enough discipline to keep their scenery chewing from going off the deep end. Mr. Rose’s gift for physical comedy is on glorious display here, but he also buries his steely intelligence behind a bruised and cloudy expression.
That tricky balance between the comedy and the tragedy is out-of-whack in the early scenes, which were off-putting in their overly fierce attack. But to be fair, the material fairly requires broadsides in the opening and doesn’t invite anything resembling subtlety until later in act one.
Where Coyote Ugly starts to hit its stride is in watching how Scarlet develops. If the play has a heart it is hers, and there are enticing suggestions of deeper, more evocative notes brought out in Katherine Martin’s daring, go-for-broke performance. It is through Scarlet that many of the play’s biggest revelations are communicated, and Ms. Martin prowls the stage with a magnetic force that pulls you right along with her, even when she is committing acts of unrepentant cruelty. She finds the comedy largely through building character, and is the most successful among the cast at achieving that crucial balance. In the final moments, the play discovers a poetic and timeless quality through Scarlet that somewhat redeems the degradation.
The strongest element in Siefert’s writing is the sense of place, the idea that the characters have been formed by a landscape so unrelenting and over-heated that survival demands relinquishing civility and perhaps even sanity. Dowd and Penny’s transformations show this, but it finally comes down to the voracious yet still somewhat innocent Scarlet, who is ultimately doomed to occupy the dry and unforgiving desert which has been more mother and father to her than Red or Andreas were ever capable of.
Mr. Cooper has always displayed a taste for the bloody and violent aspects of the human experience, as well as scatological humor – he launched Savage Rose with John Ford’s still controversial ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, so it is easy to see the appeal of Coyote Ugly, which echoes some the themes of that Jacobean tragedy. But where the formal and eloquent language he favors in classical material draws out his finer sensibilities to frame such baser elements, Coyote revels too much in the squalor, a toxic and hideously cynical perspective on humanity that is only bearable because you can laugh your way through it.
The dry desperation of the setting is effectively captured in the set design (by Cooper and Greg Sanders); grimy and cluttered for the interior of the house, spare and hard for the one patch of desert ground, and Cooper’s choices in music are essential in establishing the tone of the piece.
Thursday 09/07/17 8:00 pm
Friday 09/08/17 8:00 pm
Saturday 09/09/17 8:00 pm
Thursday 09/14/17 8:00 pm
Friday 09/15/17 8:00 pm
Saturday 09/16/17 8:00 pm
Monday 09/18/17 8:00 pm
Thursday 09/21/17 8:00 pm
Friday 09/22/17 8:00 pm
Saturday 09/23/17 8:00 pm
Not suitable for children.
Beer and snacks are available at the bar.
Tickets are $20 and the show is performed at the following dates and and times.
Go to Alleytheater.org for exact schedule for each production and tickets.
The Alley Theater
615 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.