Frolick stages a compulsively watchable Cowboy Mouth as a “happening” in Toronto
I’m going to be completely honest, and perhaps depressingly square, here: though I have nothing against them, I have never taken hallucinogenic drugs. Perhaps that’s what I was missing in Frolick Theatre’s mounting of Cowboy Mouth, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s 1971 one-act, which bills itself as a “happening,” with all that entails.
With a mission to present “wholistic [sic] cultural events for diverse audiences,” this is the first “straight play” for the company (which manages to be trippy in its own right) in the midst of a “multi-disciplinary” experience of dinner, the play, and freewheeling music and partying thereafter. The people are lovely, the production at the evening’s core is pleasingly solid, and the food is hearty. It is, however, the kind of experience that is obviously enhanced by substances and the ability to be fully open to the hippie vibe.
Arriving at “Toronto’s newest independent artist colony, Umbrella BEACH,” my guest and I found a stage decked out to resemble the Chelsea Hotel of the 1970s, costumes for the audience to wear, and intriguing art installations, some beautifully made. When we showed up right before the scheduled dinner (an add-on to the basic show ticket), things were a little disorganized, but eventually settled.
Dinner, by chef Adam Maxwell, features local food: a tasty salad, Shepherd’s (appropriately, called “Shepard’s”) Pie (vegan option available), and a nice dessert, baked apples with whipped cream.
There are “Global Psychedelic Dinner Conversation Menu” cards on the table; guests are encouraged to share their stories of experimentation and why they believe psychedelics should be legalized (there isn’t a dissenting option). You’re going to meet some fascinating people. The evening aims to raise funds for a campaign to treat those with PTSD using substances such as MDMA.
After dinner, we moved into the well-appointed space for the play, which Shepard and Smith wrote to star in as versions of themselves, caught in a verbal and musical battle. Here, Shawna Willow plays the street urchin Cavale (who is devoted to her dead, stuffed crow), and Matthew Krist the would-be-rockstar Slim, who Cavale has “kidnapped” away from wife and child with unfulfilled promises of life as a rock god. The two talented actors are fully committed to the tricky dialogue, comfortable with the swings between drama and comedy, and play off each other’s physicality well.
There are some technical glitches with the singing/music, and I don’t know if it was supposed to be purposefully off-rhythm and off-key, to show the deluded nature of the characters, or not. In addition, though the character is supposed to be self-conscious about “talking funny,” I didn’t really get that from Willow’s performance. She makes up for it, however, with great vulnerability in a scene describing starring in a school play as the Ugly Duckling.
The interesting thing about the script, much like the hippie movement, is that you’re never completely sure how seriously the show or the characters take themselves. Sometimes it seems brutally pretentious, and at other times it is clearly making fun of itself. The tonal shifts create something that is both frustrating and compulsively watchable.
The best parts come when Geoffrey Armour enters as a living Lobster Man, serving himself up to the couple as the final prawn in their desperate game. The show really came to a boil, so to speak, whenever Lobster Man was onstage, upping the electricity of the exchanges. This is perhaps surprising for a largely silent character, but Hall was a perfect audience surrogate, absolutely selling the discomfort of the role in or out of (superb) costume.
The surreal aspect puts the play over the top in a good way; the uneasiness of skirting the boundary between reality and surrealism vanishes, and we’re able to truly appreciate the script’s audaciousness and humour. Did the explosive nature of the play fit with the mellow vibe of the evening? Not quite, but still, a solid choice.
After the show, the “happening” begins, with music from live bands, art exhibits, and an indoor slide. This is a case of “choose your own adventure,” with some adventures being particularly fruitful. If you can swing a tour of the art/machine shop via the artist, I highly recommend it; you’re taken through inventions, a treasure trove of cut metalwork, a venue for growing oyster mushrooms, and might get to see a steel bar get bent with a massive lever. The passion here is genuine and infectious, and I really appreciated the collective’s openness to showing us around.
Try as I might, I may never quite be “happening.” If you are, this just might be the place to be.
- Cowboy Mouth runs at Frolick Studio Theatre and Umbrella BEACH, 160 Bartley Drive, from April 15-17
- Dinner is at 7:00PM; show starts at 8:00PM, with a 2:00PM matinee on Sunday.
- Tickets are $25 (show and afterparty only) or $50 (meal included, vegan meal available) and can be purchased online here or at Eventbrite. The matinee is PWYC (show only, with High Tea and a smaller performance schedule).
- The show contains mature content (sex, drugs, partial and suggested nudity) and is for an adult audience.
Photo of Matthew Krist and Shawna Willow provided by the company