Some fringe shows ply their audiences with beer and popcorn, others with the promise of nudity, violence, or rock and roll, but Riding the Bull knew the only thing that could break this reviewer’s heart of cold stone: A Banjo. The two actor cast is accompanied by the show stealing Curtis Eller and his banjo. The 15 minute preshow of Eller picking out songs about Elvis, Silent Movies, and Horse were by far the best part of the show. This is not to say that Riding the Bull was not incredibly entertaining, but is rather a testament to great joy of a hearing a banjo.
Riding the Bull is the story of a god fearing rodeo clown in a small Texas town whose battles with temptation lead him to power, money, the real Elvis Presley, a holy cow, and maybe even love. The cast consists of Jason McCool as the bumbling, big headed rodeo clown Gaylord (GL) Mitchell, and Kate Debelack as Lyza, the jaded town troublemaker with a penchant for dressing up cows and putting religious statues in compromising positions. When Lyza and GL discover a novel way to find out the winners of upcoming bullfights, their fortunes change forever.
The script starts out slow, and it takes a while for McCool and Debelack to hit their strides, but all is cured once the plot starts to move forward. The comedy of the first 3/4s of the script is amusing and well executed, but it is the relationship between GL and Lyza that is the true strength of this piece. They are hilarious at the beginning, but both character are real enough that the very (surprisingly) poignant ending is not ruined. The show and its characters are so broad and campy, the intensity of the ending was shocking. However, that was the part of the production that stuck with me the most – I cried. (I am a Theater Crier, but only when the show is very good). McCool’s final monologue is moving, and Debelack manages to keep the audience on her side from beginning to bitter end despite Lyza’s many failings.
The problems of this production were overcome by the strength of its two actors, but problems did exist. In addition to the afore mentioned textual issues, the staging was confusing at times. I know it’s Fringe, people, but not every show can be done with two stools, a bale of hay and a plastic Jesus; there were many places in the show that would have been majorly enhanced by a few more set elements. I also felt that Curtis Eller and his wonderful banjo were underused. After the preshow he only occasionally punctuated what was being said with short strains of music. This was so effective, I missed it throughout the rest of the show.
See it: You’re in the mood for a lot of fun, a lot of heart, a little blasphemy, and a little banjo.
Skip it: You can’t stand the thought of seeing another Fringe show making fun of country folk