Playwright: Anthony Ellison. At: Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, 1420 W. Irving Park. Phone: 800-838-3006; $15 Runs through: Oct. 3
The literary and film genre we call "Westerns" has been described as "romance fiction for men," and rightfully so. If gender-linked convention dictates that women's adventures be set in the interior realms of the heart, it also mandates that men's occur in the external world of actiona formula facilitated by the wide open spaces of the American frontier. With its readers' gradual orientation to more egalitarian roles for the sexes, however, stories combining the two spheres of consciousness have perpetuated the popularity of the bodice-ripping/bronco-busting yarn to the extent that Anthony Ellison thinks it needs some spoofing.
Texas Sheena title as evocative as it is meaninglessopens on the ranch of the cruel Judd Lawson, which also houses his fey sister-in-law Mandrin, his beautiful daughter Lily ( who looks a little like the girl in the Milo Manara comics ) and his scruffy farmhand Slaughter, who speaks in the idiom dubbed by Mel Brooks, "authentic western gibberish." Into this volatile family unit comes Elroy McShanea recently discharged WW II veteran in the Marlon Brando/William Holden moldhis intent, to redeem his brother's gambling debts, which Lawson agrees to let him work off through the sweat of his brow and flex of his muscles.
Wherever you have landowners, tensions between neighbors provide opportunities for plot conflicts, just as an abundance of escape routes does not necessarily free lovers from tribal responsibilities as severely binding as those in more structured societies. Wartime experience allows heroes to be haunted by memories of hardships suffered on the front lines ( recounted in authentic G.I. gibberish by a distraught McShane ) , while the death of Lawson materfamilias gives rise to suspicions over Mandrin's role in her untimely end. The travails of this ill-starred clan also encompass its patriarch's repressed homosexual urges; Lily and Mandrin's rivalry for McShane's affections; and the disposal of a deceased horse ( seen only from the rear, naturally ) .
Given these premises, most plays would have no recourse but to spin into shrill chaos, but Ellison keeps awell, tight rein on his scenario. The five actors, under the direction of Karisa Bruin, likewise maintain control of their cartoon-sized personae, sustaining an appropriately brisk pace while never pushing the exaggeration to annoying proportions. Even in final preview, the smartly crafted plot complications ascertaining that the wicked be defeated and the virtuous rewarded make for a surprisingly satisfying conclusion to the characters' farcical progress.