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A Juicy Steak

Cowboys, cowgirls and a little vegan lust hit the trail

If the Marlboro Man is your cowboy thing, then Joey Berner's production of Steak! at the Actors Workshop might not be. Christi Stewart-Brown and Elizabeth Pringle's tongue-in-cheek musical -- which premiered last year in Washington, D.C., to great response -- subverts nearly a century of genre images that celebrate the brave, singular lives of cowboys. Like a drag show on the Chisholm Trail, Steak! is full of enough sexy anachronisms and gender-specific humor to make a madam blush.

The conflict that drives the play (sort of) is between men and women who love sirloin, though for very different reasons. On a cattle drive to Ogallala, Nebraska, two factions of cowfolks, one guys and the other gals, ride the range and attempt to drive the herd to satisfy their own politics -- the cowgirls lean toward emancipating the enslaved beef, while the cowboys see nothing under that pile of hide except dinner and a paycheck.

Four Texas cowboys -- Houston, Dallas, Austin and Paris -- are in charge of driving the herd across the prairie. With their frustrated French cook, Phillipe, they stay on the lookout for a notorious band of rustlers, who are the aforementioned gals, vegetarians with an activist bent: Betty-Bob, Bambi-Jo, Dusty Lou and Rainbow.

The nod toward Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove reads strong and clear in Steak!, but not before it's mixed with a contemporary blend of sexual politics. Many writers have ventured into the homosocial arena of cowboy life, but Pringle and Stewart-Brown push the genre a bit further. The result is often touching and hilarious. Rainbow, a Native American scout, falls for the lonely Dusty Lou, a cowgirl too afraid to let anyone near her hole-punched heart. Trail honcho Dallas pines away for the cowboy poet Paris, who refers to his privates as "a jumping prairie dog." Nothing swings too low for the writers of this musical: Houston's defining characteristic is his burping, and his fondest activity is, well, "bothering" the cattle.

In Act I, the music is split neatly between the worlds of the men and the women, laying the groundwork for loving and roping. The male chorus, which opens the play, isn't as strong as it should be, but the female chorus is wonderfully in tune and sings with the bravado one would expect from vegetarians freeing cattle from their oppressors. The band needed a bit more help from music director Robert Dee: the bass player drowns out the weaker male solos -- which, in some cases, is a blessing, since the guys are often painfully off key. As a group, the cowboy faction is just as dirty as one expects, and their appetite for beef never wavers. Their repeating chorus to their cook runs, "Stun it, grab it, shoot it, stab it, kill it, grill it, fry it, try it!" They refer, of course, to steak.

On the other side of the stage, which is divided in two to emphasize the sexes' separation, the lady rustlers satisfy themselves with a hearty bean stew after a day on the trail. It's around the campfire that the rustlers' plan is laid: they will disguise themselves as schoolteachers in need of protection in order to ride with the cowboys' herd. Characters aren't developed so much as they are lampooned -- Bambi-Jo, we learn, was raised by deer in the forest and occasionally reverts back to ruminant behavior. Still, the comedy works precisely because it is so ridiculous, and because the cast is fierce and true. Back on the cowboys' side of the stage/corral, Houston is responsible for audience participation, which he encourages by insulting the audience into "mooing on cue" as he gallops around the stage.

There's not a lot of complicated plot involved here, but there is plenty of opportunity for singing and boot scooting in a variety of locales: on the trail, among the cattle and in a saloon run by the insatiable Miss Libby. True to genre, the buried gem inside Steak! is this bar mistress with a heart encased in a studded leather bra. Jennifer Kay Savoy, playing the role with enough erotic intensity to jump-start a herd, relishes her bullwhip as Miss Libby. She provides hard liquor and hard loving -- the latter usually reserved for her bondage slave, Bruce. Both the rustlers and the herders intertwine at Miss Libby's, finding love in the most unlikely places.

The minimal prop pieces include stick horses, which the actors handle with precision and humor, stroking their manes while clucking about all their hard work. There's much make-believe in Steak!, which qualifies it as imaginative low-budget fare, but it isn't without its sentimental balance. The show's love song, "Wranglin' with My Heart," reprised several times, resonates with the loneliness of Bambi-Jo and Paris, the play's sole heterosexual couple, who decide that their eating habits and rules for the trail just won't allow for matrimony.

The strongest performances come from the misguided heterosexuals: Hayes Hargrove as the earnestly innocent poet, Paris; Gretchen Lindquist, who makes the audience believe she really is eating a bouquet of flowers as the regressing deer-girl Bambi-Jo; and the fearless Robert Hurst, who plays Houston with a wicked streak of laughter.

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