In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
February 11, 2011
Who knew the New York theatre was such a big fan of football? If the Super Bowl marked the official end of the sport’s season, no one told us. Right now, audiences can see the dad from TV’s The Wonder Years as a legendary coach in Lombardi, and in Bushwick, a gang of high-flying ladies in Half Straddle’s newest work In the Pony Palace/Football.
What “The Pony Palace” is, I’m still not sure. But they have a football team, and it is with this group of women that the play is concerned. As they work toward a winning season, we watch as the dynamic between coaches, players, and cheerleaders shifts and grows. Playwright Tina Satter uses the sports-genre film as a framework for her play, but what emerges from this isn’t anything like Remember the Titans. Without ever venturing into spoof, Satter plays with the language, relationships, and scenarios common in these movies, twisting and turning them until they are something entirely her own. Her actors do the same, creating moments we may recognize, but haven’t seen before.
When I reviewed Tina Satter’s Nurses in New England last year, my only complaint was that she never gave us a real story to follow; to invest ourselves in. I still believe this, but now I’m beginning to see that this was not a mistake so much as a part of what makes Satter’s work unique. For her, the story is not as important as the mood and overall experience of both her characters and her audience. In this way, she is sort of like Richard Foreman’s funny, pop-culture obsessed cousin. Like Foreman’s otherworldly symbols and sets, the joy and attraction of a work like Pony Palace is in the way the strange (yet familiar) language comes together with music and energetic staging to create a mood and feeling not experienced anywhere else. When you sit down to watch this play, you are in the very specific world of Tina Satter. Giving yourself over to this fact is the only way to truly grasp what she is attempting to do.
As she did with Nurses, Satter has assembled a fantastic cast for Pony Palace, all of whom have been molded to resemble the type of characters popular in the sports genre. There’s the quarterback with the weight of the world on her shoulders, a caring but demanding head coach, and the recent transfer who knows exactly what she is worth. And cheerleaders. And a tight end who wears a giant owl mask. While everyone here makes this play the success it is, a couple game balls have to be given to the hilarious Erin Markey, the warm vocals of Julia Sirna-Frest, and the vulnerable yet determined Jess Barbagallo.
In addition to some very charming performances and exciting, interactive staging, Pony Palace also features the tiny but formidable marching band comprised of Bobby McElver, Jon Lijoi, Mary Rasmussen, and Justin Dayhoff. I’m convinced: every play needs a marching band. Their big sound adds so much to a work like this, where nothing is more important than the mood that hangs when the night comes to a close. If anyone makes it cool to be in the band, it’s this crew.
Pony Palace, with great music, a strong cast, and vivid, oddly wonderful language, is a fun exploration into the concept of team, as well as a boisterous celebration of women. Even more, it is a great example of what Half Straddle can do, whose specific vision and big, playful imagination will always be something our theatre will need in spades.