A Juicy Steak

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.

Steak! takes dead aim at the romantic vision of the American West, but it doesn't do so without kindness. Berner, who produced and directed this summer's Media Darlings, has created another piece of entertaining theater that even the Marlboro Man might enjoy, should he rise from the grave and come riding into town with his horse's mane blowing in the breeze.

My first lullaby was from Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, and it inspired a childhood-long love affair with the British duo's operettas. I know now, unfortunate as it may be, that people don't necessarily burst into song and jig or propose marriage upon first meeting. But still, it worries me when I see a bad production of G&S, because it means an audience leaves with a dullard's vision of what vintage musical theater is meant to accomplish.

Such is the case in the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston's production of Ruddygore, a musical that is indeed aggressively dull. There are no characters to love, only Rose Maybud, a prim and proper maiden who unfailingly consults a book of etiquette before speaking, and her shy suitor, Robin Oakapple, who is by birthright (gasp!) the cursed Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd of Ruddygore castle.

Maybud must marry before her squadron of professional bridesmaids can be released from their duties, but she's far too polite to express her true feelings. Robin lacks the gumption to make his proposal, and this condition lays the trap for typical melodramatic fare -- Maybud accepts the proposal of another suitor, and Robin is revealed as the heir of a curse that demands he commit a heinous crime each day or suffer a painful death.

The production features two very good choral pieces, "Hail the Bride" and "Happily Coupled Are We," but the musical as a whole crashes on its own boring premise. It's impossible to latch onto any thread of genuine emotion because the acting, costumes and set are so thoroughly processed. As Maybud, Robin Smith applies her wrist to her forehead far too often, and as her suitor, Alistair Donkin is goofy and trite. There's the requisite fog, lightning and ghosts. None of it made a whit's worth of difference.

To top it all off, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society chose to insult the audience's sense of hearing by amplifying the performance via speakers, which on Sunday registered feedback on three of Maybud's solos.

At their best, Gilbert and Sullivan, with their bright happiness and sly double-entendres just above the children's heads, virtually define family entertainment. Don't drag the kids along to Ruddygore, though, unless they're ready for a nap.

Steak! plays through August 17 at the Actors Workshop, 1009 Chartres, 236-1844.

Ruddygore plays through July 28 at the Wortham Center, Cullen Theater, 627-3570.

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Megan Halverson