This Is a Cowboy Poem My Daddy Taught Me
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
May 29, 2008
This Is A Cowboy Poem My Daddy Taught Me is one beautiful piece of theatre. The story takes place in the tough desert town of Marfa, Texas, an actual place made famous by the residency of artist/architect Donald Judd. Judd spends the play trying to work out the details of his will and his wishes for the permanent installations he created there. Other characters are Scrappy, an anti-social poet and bartender, and a luminous young woman named Love who is passing through looking for her nomadic mother who has disappeared. We also see Scrappy as an orphaned teen with his sister Crystal, and how they survived with only each other on the rough outskirts of town. Everyone in this play is lonely, restless, and searching for something they need to survive. Their art and their words are their only tools for accessing hope and a connection to the greater world beyond Marfa.
The lyricism of this play is remarkable. Playwright Katie Bender, who also plays Love, has invented four unique and compelling characters while lacing their language into a poetry that is often stunning. This play is a feast of eloquence and metaphors. The sense of the desert feels as much like another character as the setting. The actors convey it expertly with the words, images, and rhythms of the text. Watching it I could almost feel the dust and heat. I could almost feel the desolate chill when Crystal gets spooked in the night by a dog that should have been shot dead but isn't dead. Bender evokes a very specific place where truth and time shift like mirages. The poetry from the worldly characters and the poetry from the under-educated kids are unique to their speakers yet equally poignant.
All four performers are wonderful and keen direction by Stephanie Yankwitt is evident throughout. The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre is an intimate playing space. The audience is seated on three sides of the small stage only three rows deep—the staging leaves nowhere to hide. Up close and personal, all four actors handle the challenging, lyrical text with convincing honesty and moving sincerity throughout. Despite the theatrical beauty of the play, I often felt like I was eavesdropping on real-life conversations—hiding at the end of the porch, sitting a table away at the bar. Jesse Presler does a great job as the poet/brother Scrappy and Mary Guiteras is a blast as the gun-loving, bossy sister Crystal. I totally bought their sibling scrappiness as well as how deeply they treasure and depend on each other. Bender's Love is a delicate and soulful gift.
However, the play is not perfect. There is a play-acting church scene that made little sense to me. The play felt long in parts and could still use some trimming. On the other hand, Stephen Payne's performance as Donald Judd is so irresistible I really wanted more of him. His character work and the lines he's given are just that much fun. I was also unimpressed by the technical design of the show, which took a backseat to the language instead of meeting it. Presler's age specificity between playing the 14-year-old kid and the adult bartender could be sharper, and led to some confusion for me as I watched.
It is also worth mentioning that I was privileged to see the official opening night performance of this play. For an opening night, this was an extremely tight and professional operation. The flow in the action was fluid and the transitions were seamless. I never felt like I was watching separate scenes or individual performances. The whole thing has already gelled into its own unique entity—something greater than the sum of its parts. Much like what the Donald Judd character values in his work, there is a precise uniformity of style and vision in this play—yet it still s reflects the chaotic wildness of its setting.