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A CurtainUp Review
King Cowboy Rufus Rules The Universe

by Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

Stories hide the truth.
---Richard Foreman

Jay Smith, Juliana Francis and T. Ryder Smith
J. Smith, J. Francis and T.R. Smith (Photo: Paula Court)

Ordinarily, Richard Foreman's plays bombard us with a grab bag of impressions to sort out afterwards. At their best, they implant footprints on our thought processes. In King Cowboy Rufus, we are again left with much to ponder, but the playwright/director's program notes uncharacteristically reveal his (not terribly well-disguised anyway) aim quite explicitly: "to put on stage, not George Bush himself, but a foppish English gentleman who, while seeming a figure from out of the past--yet dreams of becoming an imitation George Bush--acquiring that same power and manifesting similar limits of vision."

Thus venturing into the miasma of the current political environment, Foreman is sensitive to the risk of doing nothing more than "preaching to the converted". Yet it's unlikely his annual, eagerly-anticipated East Village exercise will attract many of the unwashed, and so we must consider how it functions, or could function, as political theater. In the final analysis, though it displays its auteur's signature artistic vision beautifully, it fails to do the one thing it must: incite its audience to action.

The play employs the standard Foreman-esque imagery and techniques (discussed ad nauseam in previous reviews which are linked below and thus not repeated here), but with his target identified, the shards on display here add up to more than they usually do -- markers on a path already cleared rather than detours on a road to some truth. Ironically, perhaps, in being so explained, they rob the audience of the heavy-lifting which Foreman trained us to do long ago, and which, in Foreman's very best works, is rewarded with even more trenchant truths. The story, it would seem, does indeed hide those truths.

Foreman may also have met his match in GWB. Who could invent a fiction to compete with the contemporaneous news: a president who, while riding huge deficits like a bucking bronco, announces a plan to occupy the moon as a stepping stone to conquering Mars? How could Rufus (Jay Smith), who merely trains his six-shooters on every empire in sight, trump that?

Smith manages to invest Rufus with affectations so perfect that they simultaneously feel both genuine and absurd: part monster, with a Texas-size appetite for everything from crowns to countries, part pathetic soul and much of the remainder, spoiled child. He is joined by a remarkably gifted pair of actors for his romps: T. Ryder Smith, who portrays Rufus' compadre, The Baron Herman De Voto, as if he were Humphrey Bogart portraying a sardonic Rasputin, and Juliana Francis as Susie Sitwell, described repeatedly as a coquette and acting like every woman that description conjures up. Flawless execution is a Foreman trademark, and this trio is more than up to the task as he leads them (and the seven members of his "stage crew") through his kaleidoscope effortlessly.

No one will be disappointed by the exhibition of Foreman's work in Rufus. And no one has the right to demand anything more of his efforts. But knowing the stakes, and having undertaken to explore them, for Foreman to have done more would have been welcome.

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King Cowboy Rufus Rules The Universe
Written, Directed and Designed by Richard Foreman

with Jay Smith, Juliana Francis and T. Ryder Smith
Costumes: Kasia Walicka Maimone
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
Ontological Theatre at St. Mark's Church, 131 East 10th Street (@2 Av)
Telephone (212) 533-4650
TUES, THURS - SUN @8; $20, $15 (students), $25 (SAT PERF ONLY)
Opening January 15, 2004, closing April 18, 2004
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 1/16/04 performance

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