Normally, if I was going to write about a show written and directed by an 18 year old, and whose lead actor was 15, I’d do this: Pick out my favorite moments, point out and post some pics of the standout actors, and, if I enjoyed the show, I’d say so. Simple and sweet.
Cowboy, written and directed by 18 year old Jack Allen with 15 year old Knox Blakely in the lead, does not, cannot, slot into any kind of “normal” category. Why? Well, let’s start out with the obvious. These two toddlers are the jewels in a setting of long time Tulsa theatre vets Andy Axewell, Dale Sams, John and Sara Cruncleton, and more, all of whom are considerably older. The play was close to 3 ½ hours long (must be something in the air over at the Nightingale). It dealt—intelligently—with issues of justice, morality, the current political situation, and the nature of civilization. And the language was a little saltier than you’d expect to hear from kids this age.
No, let me amend that last one. The language was a lot saltier than what you’d expect to hear from kids this age.
So what’s going on here? And what can I say about it?
Let’s start with the play. Allen’s created an absurdist epic that stretches from coast to coast and beyond. It’s a world where space and time are arbitrary, identity is flexible, and a cowboy hat pulls off a mass killing. Nine characters, each with their own distinctive voice, interact in a kaleidoscope of shifting circumstances and emotional states. We are presented with three acts, each one with a unique tone and progressing with a kind of absurdist logic towards something that at least resembles a resolution. The play achieves a variety of moods and gives space for a spectrum of theatrical effects. Most spectacularly, the end of the 2nd act is a theatrical tour de force that provokes widely varied reactions from the audience.
As for the actors: In a reversal of what we might expect, the older and more experienced actors embody archetypes and tend towards stereotypical behaviors, while the young couple at the heart of the play, Cowboy and Cowgirl, played by Knox Blakely and Kelly Leake, have subtly nuanced roles that require a huge range of emotional responses. Leake is apparently new to Tulsa, looks to be mid-20’s, and is obviously talented and extremely likeable onstage. Blakely does an outstanding job with a huge role that requires a ridiculous range of skills. It would be an admirable and noteworthy performance for an adult. Knox is 15. At that point the noteworthy becomes remarkable.
Thematically, the play attempts and largely succeeds in examining and remarking on a wide range of topics. The 3 word definition of civilization manages both to confront our current political dilemma at the same time it feels timeless. Entertainment wise, the play fully embodies Allen’s absurdist humor that has been on display in his standup and sketch comedy over the last few years. Verbally, the characters speak both as real people and with the same unique flair that so impressed me about his longer poems.
So. Do the excellences of these varied elements add up to a masterpiece of absurdist theatre, something resembling a perfect play? No. To get immediately to the point, an 18 year old simply cannot be completely successful in his first full length play when his aspirations are this sky high. Story telling remains crucial, even in absurdist pieces; Allen’s facility with language tempts him to verbal gymnastics that lead him into narrative detours and cul-de-sacs. The show would have benefitted from being at least 30 minutes shorter—knowing the limits of what your audience and your actors are capable of is part of creating the theatrical experience. Thematically, having something clever to say about everything is not near as effective as putting one particular idea in a pressure cooker, setting on high, and seeing what explodes.
On a scale of 1 to 10? Don’t be ridiculous, that kind Consumer Reports approach doesn’t have any place in a discussion of the arts, and most especially in evaluating a piece like this. Let’s talk about meaning and potentialities instead.
Cowboy may premiere a new and unique voice in American drama. That’s how different and promising it is. If Allen continues along the artistic trajectory we’ve witnessed over the last few years, Cowboy may eventually be seen as an immature work, but only in context of what an 18 year old can create vs. what’s possible for someone with several more plays and a lot more life experience under his belt. Will this happen? Who knows, but even the possibility should make you at least a little bit curious. At the Nightingale for 2 more weekends. In a word: Intriguing.
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