Rancho Obscuro | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Rancho Obscuro 

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Cardiff Giant

at Strawdog Theatre

Watching Cardiff Giant's Rancho Obscuro was puzzling. I couldn't understand how the same people who presented such intelligent and entertaining characterizations could fail to realize that they had neglected to write a play. The performers (who wrote Rancho Obscuro with their director) are very good. They're innovative. They're funny. They're good at playing a style. But most audiences want more than delightfully inventive characters. We want a good story. We want some meaning. In short, we want a play.

Rancho Obscuro is not a play. The plot is so rambling and incoherent as to be virtually nonexistent. If there was an overall statement being made, I failed to grasp it. The only thing this production has going for it, aside from the occasionally witty lines, are those characterizations.

And those characterizations are delightful. Though the actors have varied amounts of skill, all of the characters are wonderfully bizarre and quite finely tuned. Phil Lortie plays Francis Pie, a kind of hit man who relies on seduction and innuendo to get his way. He's a big, dumb, pretty Texan with a penchant for Moon Pies and bullying. Francis is hired by Maxwell (played by the quirky, skillful Greg Kotis), the manager of the bank where all the action takes place. Maxwell is straight out of a 30s movie, an updated combination of Snidely Whiplash and Mr. Drysdale from The Beverly Hillbillies. Always plotting and manipulating, Maxwell is the ultimate banker, speaking German with overseas colleagues to the delight and mystification of his staff.

Maxwell's other employees are Dora (Hannah Fowlie), the idealistic, bebop-singing bank teller, whose main concern is what kind of candy is on her desk. Her betrothed is Roy (Bob Fisher), the security officer who can't wait for a disturbance so that he can use his gun, prove his virility, and maybe become Employee of the Month. Last and most complicated is Jenkins the janitor (Scott Hermes), a super genius with a wounded hip who figures out all the office intrigues, has a few of his own, and cleans the toilets to boot.

These characters zip around the bank lobby talking about a variety of traumas and trials, all having to do with the town's most beloved candy maker, Mr. Joshua, who is refusing to pay back his loan to the bank. The town is rising up against the bank by boycotting it and staging a protest sit-in across the street, thus leaving the lobby completely empty as the five employees meander through it.

All of the characters are larger than life, to the point of absurdity. The actors all push that absurdity to the limit with outrageous facial and body contortions and monstrous personality quirks, without ever forgetting the emotional foundations of their characters. Greg Kotis is especially delightful. He punctuates his speech with a W.C. Fields vocal interpolation and so revels in Maxwell's machinations that you can almost see the trail of slime he leaves behind him.

There are absurdities galore in this circus of weirdos, but only one hint at meaning. Just before intermission, Jenkins starts philosophizing about death and rebirth. Saint Augustine had a theory, he tells us, that good souls become very small when they die, and go to a tiny little house where they sit and do as little as possible until they get put back on earth (which is very quickly, since God wants more good souls on earth). But bad people, he tells us, go to a huge hall where they have big parties all the time, and stay there for a very long time. This place is called Rancho Obscuro. Jenkins has a theory similar to Saint Augustine's, except for one thing: Saint Augustine's theory presupposes that we are all alive. In Jenkins's theory, we are already dead, and this world is Rancho Obscuro.

It's a pretty cool theory. But the rest of the play does nothing to illuminate it, and the audience is expecting to be illuminated, because that's where the play gets its title.

Like I said, I was puzzled. Until I talked to someone who told me about Cardiff Giant's process in developing a script. Apparently the first thing they do is develop the characters. Then they start improvising scenes between the characters. So far, so good. Cardiff Giant makes sure that each character has a complete and comprehensive story line. In any given scene, it is not the through line of the play that counts, but the through line of the dominant character in the scene. When each character's through line is completed, all the scenes that make up each story line are put together and a "play" is born.

But in Rancho Obscuro, Cardiff Giant didn't pay any attention to how the story lines fit together--or to what the overall product is trying to say. It's as if every scene they improvised has been allowed to remain, muddying anything that could possibly be construed as a theme.

What Cardiff Giant really needs is an editor. They don't have one. They do have a director, which can be almost as good (especially in this case, where the director is also one of the writers). But director Laura T. Fisher has done nothing to shape the piece into a coherent unit. In fact lighting designers Dave Auburn and Thad Davis give the most shape to the show; in spite of a lack of equipment, they do some lovely highlighting of certain scenes, including a hilarious isolation spotlight at each corner of the bank where the characters can voice their inner thoughts. But without something else to tie all the pieces together, each separate delightful fragment is not enough to hold our interest.

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