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Have Fun Will Travel: The Delightful 15 Rides the Purple Stage

Ed Rampell: Ticket buyers know they’re in for a rollicking rough and ready time even before the proverbial curtain lifts on this two-acter presented by the wryly monikered Opiate of the Masses at Hollywood’s Theatre of Note.
Ticket buyers know they’re in for a rollicking rough and ready time even before the proverbial curtain lifts on this two-acter presented by the wryly monikered Opiate of the Masses at Hollywood’s Theatre of Note.

RIO HONDO Theatre Review

As its title suggests, Rio Hondo is a genre spoof of Western movies that conflates the names of at least three John Wayne movies: 1953’s Hondo Howard Hawks’ 1959 Rio Bravo and 1970’s Rio Lobo. As cowboy Bert McGraw Darrett Sanders drolly caricatures the Duke, as the rest of the delightful 15 cast members playfully puncture the horse opera’s conventions, comically conjured up by playwright Bill Robens.

Ticket buyers know they’re in for a rollicking rough and ready time even before the proverbial curtain lifts on this two-acter presented by the wryly monikered Opiate of the Masses at Hollywood’s Theatre of Note.

Ticket buyers know they’re in for a rollicking rough and ready time even before the proverbial curtain lifts on this two-acter presented by the wryly monikered Opiate of the Masses at Hollywood’s Theatre of Note. Scenes from Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery (Fun Fact of the Review #1: This granddaddy of the Western was actually shot in the wild, wild West of New Jersey!); John Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers; plus ’60s/’70s Spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone, et al, including: Henry Fonda (as a bad guy!) in 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West, 1966’s Lee Van Cleef in Death Rides a Horse and Franco Nero in Django, etc., are projected on a screen, as designed by Ben Rock.

(Fun Fact of the Review #2: Marxist screenwriters, notably Franco Solinas, injected class struggle, revolutionary themes into some Spaghetti Westerns, so-called because they were shot primarily by Italian filmmakers and shot on location in Italy and Spain, doubling for the American West. The same year Gillo Pontecorvo helmed Solinas’ script The Battle of Algiers, Damiano Damiani directed Solinas’ adaptation of the Mexican Revolution-set A Bullet for the General. In 1969, Pontecorvo’s Caribbean revolution drama Burn! starring Marlon Brando and the Mexican guerrilla flick Tepepa starring Orson Welles were both released, with scripts by Solinas. The radical Italian went on to write Costa-Gavras films, such as the 1972 urban guerrilla classic State of Siege and wrote at least four Spaghetti Westerns. Oh oh Spaghettios!)

Meanwhile pardners, back at the review:

These film clips help set the scene inside the diminutive theatre, where the cast might actually outnumber the seats for ticket buyers. The clichés Rio Hondo takes aim at include: Gunslinger McGraw trying - unsuccessfully (surprise!!!) - to live down his trigger happy past; Rosarita (Grace Eboigbe), the sashaying town trollop with a heart of gold; Gene Michael Barrera as Ding-Ding, the token faithful ethnic character, usually in a small supporting servant role (think Victor Sen Young, who played the Cartwrights’ Chinese cook Hop Sing in 106 episodes of Bonanza, from 1959-1973); and Alina Phelan’s not-so-darling Clementine McGraw corners the market on feisty frontierswomen defending her rather ponderous Ponderosa-like spreads.

Of course, there are also greenhorn-wannabe-hired guns and homoerotic tussles between gunmen whose trigger fingers are itchy in more ways than one, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s 1968 homo-on-the-range Lonesome Cowboys. There are some gender bender roles and even a blind sharpshooter (Kirsten Vangsness, Penelope Garcia on the CBS Criminal Minds series), who rather politically incorrectly mocks the disabled. Racial stereotypes, especially of Mexican bandito types wearing serapes and sombreros, are also poked fun at, particularly by Phinneas Kiyomura as the villainous Diego Sanchez. (I don’t recall the shattering of any tribal tropes, however - and no Western is complete without the indigenous people, who had this continent stolen out from beneath their moccasins, thanks to Manifest Destiny. Now that’s material for a satire…)

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Adding to the hilarity is Rio Hondo’s rib tickling stagecraft, which imaginatively, creatively recreates cinematic motifs within in a theatrical setting. Auds are so familiar with the Oater’s genre conventions that characters galloping about onstage atop sawhorses, skillfully enhanced by lighting and sound designer Matt Richter’s touches, are sure to generate smiles, if not outright hee-haws. The stagey special effects are essential to this comedy and the best is an expertly executed reference to the first John Ford-directed John Wayne classic, 1939’s Stagecoach, which deserves some sort of Ovation Award or other. Rio Hondo’s overall ambiance is also ably augmented by “Wild” Pete Hickock’s mobile sets, which actor/stagehands render and raze rapidly, moving the plot along from location to location.

For what it’s worth, Sanders’ Duke knock-off reminded me most of Wayne in The Searchers, a film that proves Wayne was a far better actor than he is generally given credit for being. While this guy personified the American soldier and later posed as a commie-bashing super-patriot, the fact is that the only time John Wayne ever wore the uniform of his nation - not even during World War II, when many of his motion picture peers such as Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart suited up to do their bit (and Duke took advantage of their absence overseas to advance his movie career) - was in the safety of a Hollywood set or backlot. So when you think of Wayne as a brave Marine, etc., it just proves what a great actor he was because when the so-called Duke had his chance to duke it out with our fascist enemies and join the armed services to fight for America during the Big One, this coward was missing in action.

MEANWHILE, back at the review (again):

Eboigbe’s tongue in cheek portrayal of Rosarita is like a cross between High Noon’s Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) and Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), with dollops of attitude. (Fun Fact of the Review #3: According to the show’s Footlights program, Eboigbe studied with the Moscow Art Theatre - Holy Stanislavsky!) Lauren Van Kurin is a welcome transplant from Sacred Fools, where she specializes in its ongoing Serial Killers.

Jaime Robledo, too, has roots in the superlative Sacred Fools Theater Company, and this helmer’s métier appears to be directing parodies. His knee slapping Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes proved so popular that this Ovation nominee engendered a sequel, Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini. Along with Watson, the gifted Robledo directed another one of my L.A. theatre favorites, Sacred Fools’ production of Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, starring French Stewart, which also deftly deployed onstage special effects with great derring-do, skill and Swiss precision timing. Robledo uses his talents to pull together Rio Hondo’s large cast, special effects, and montage-like mise-en-scène with aplomb. (However, better use could have been made with the pre-curtain Spaghetti Western screen to project Western vistas and the like during the play per se. I mean, not projecting Monument Valley is a monumental oversight, wrote the snarky reviewer who doesn’t have to foot the bills for any production costs.)

Some may find Rio Hondo to be a one trick pony with a single joke premise that stops being funny after awhile. But the rip-roaring second act makes it worthwhile to hang in there, buckeroos. For those who enjoyed the cinematic spoofs Cat Ballou, Blazing Saddles and the recent A Million Ways to Die in the West, this is must-see thee-a-tuh, and fans will be happy to know Robens’ deliriously daffy play has been held over. Overall, Rio Hondo’s the delightful 15 are a welcome, refreshing antidote for Quentin Tarantino’s self-important, overindulgent The Hateful Eight - and a lot more enjoyable for riders of the purple stage, proving have fun will travel.

Opiate of the Masses’ Rio Hondo has been extended through Jan. 10 at Theatre of Note. Performances are Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. There will be no performances over Christmas holiday weekend or January 1Theatre of Note is at 1517 N. Cahuenga (just north of Sunset), Hollywood, CA 90028). Reservations/Information: www.theatreofnote.com; (323)856-8611.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell