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Coyote Ugly 

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Pillar Studio

In the Arizona desert in the summer, temperatures can climb to 110 degrees or more. This may explain the addled condition of the Pewsy family. Red, its patriarch, is preoccupied with his priapic prowess and his dream of driving his very own car, and Andreas, his consort, is his equal in both lechery and vulgarity. Their daughter, Scarlet, burns more fiercely than her genial parents, conjuring magic spells from rocks and bones in the arid wilderness using a sort of homegrown shamanism. Having only the desert animals for playmates, this child has adopted many of their characteristic behaviors--for example, she greets her father by enthusiastically dry-humping his leg. But little Scarlet, fast approaching puberty, yearns for a savior to deliver her from her casually abusive keepers--and she's set out steel traps in hopes of snaring some wayward totem, whether man or beast. Into this volatile environment comes her long-absent brother, Dowd, and his genteel schoolteacher wife, Penny--who's promptly caught in one of the traps. Scarlet instantly recognizes Dowd as her Prince Charming.

"Coyote ugly" describes a state of captivity so repugnant the captive is willing to chew off his own body parts to escape. Lynn Siefert's play is aptly named. In a bare 90 minutes we're treated, verbally or visually, to incest, hysterical impotence, automotive arson, murder, bags of dead animals, and a father-son fistfight brutal enough to sicken even aficionados of stage combat. Characters bark, snarl, bite, belch, fart, drool, eat whipped cream straight from the can, masturbate with the refrigerator, and wallow on the floor in a pool of milk and beer. They have hot cooking oil thrown in their faces, are forced at knife point to eat fish heads (the Pillar Studio is adjacent to the Fulton Street market, by the way--these are real fish), and are abandoned in the desert to be transformed by the sun to the color and texture of barbecue chips. If Beth Henley, the current champion of southern gothic eccentricity, were to blow her brains out, this is the play she would write just before doing it.

The fledgling Pillar Studio group--most of whom appear to have roots in New York City's New School for Social Research--note that our culture is addressing "the "true nature' of the American family. . . . and the myths and realities of the structures that shape us." Jolly-good gross-out theater can, of course, be co-opted for purposes of sociological insight--a case in point is Torso Theatre's Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack. But in this instance audiences would be advised to forgo lofty theorizing and simply enjoy the prodigious talent and craft of director Hallie Gordon and her cast, who pull no punches in their depiction of the most dysfunctional family since the Lesters in Tobacco Road but never indulge in look-ma-I'm-acting excess.

The disciplined concentration and dexterity of Ian Belknap as Red, Shannon Stepan as Andreas, and Tracy Landecker as the feral Scarlet render the considerable discrepancies between the ages of the actors and their characters virtually unnoticeable after the first few minutes. In the role of Penny--the only character who must undergo any change in the course of the play--Amy Landecker conveys in chillingly meticulous detail the transformation from civilization to a savagery so powerful and primitive that her passive husband, blandly played by Troy Schremmer, can only capitulate. Phil Lampert's sprawling set, as borderless in the cavernous Pillar loft as the desert it represents, places the audience members like so many clumps of cactus in the midst of the action, which includes some jim-dandy fight choreography by Kent Shelton. Stringing together the various episodes are the voice of deejay John Landecker and some of the most obnoxious songs in the history of pop music.

The ghost of Steppenwolf's 1985 premiere production hangs over every other Coyote Ugly--in Chicago, anyway. But if the Pillar ensemble's next show displays the same high level of expertise evident here, we can welcome another promising troupe to the Chicago theater community.


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