Earlier this year in their brilliantly spoofy Entropy, playwright Bill Robens and Theatre Of NOTE managed somehow to stage a gazillion-dollar Hollywood space-travel epic inside a 40something-seat theater. Robens and NOTE now work the same magic on that most American of movie genres—the Western—in their World Premiere comedy Rio Hondo, to my knowledge the very first L.A. theater production presented “in CinemaStage” and one that no horse opera lover will want to miss.

rio 4 Not that you have to be a fan of John Wayne/Clint Eastwood shoot-em-ups to go gaga for Rio Hondo, though it will help to have seen at least a few of them to fully appreciate how spot-on Robens’ latest is.

It’s got a dusty frontier town, a sprawling cattle ranch, and a Wild West saloon. It’s got bandits, lawmen, outlaws, and barmaids who do more than serve drinks. It’s got as many showdowns as two or three Westerns put together.

rio 68 And it’s got a lead character that The Duke or Clint would have been born to play—recently retired sheriff Bert McGraw, determined at long last after a lifetime of gun slinging to hang up his badge, sit back, relax, and smell the daisies … if only he didn’t still have such an itchy trigger finger.

What Bert (Darrett Sanders) hasn’t reckoned with is New Sheriff In Town Diego Sanchez (Phinneas Kiyomura), whose dirty dealings with a pack of land-hungry railroad barons bent on owning every acre of the territory could have dire consequences on the locals.

rio 13 One of those in imminent danger of losing both her property and livelihood is beef rancher Clementine McGraw (Alina Phelan), Bert’s widowed sister-in-law and a woman our hero has had a hankerin’ for for years.

rio 36 Standing by on alert with an aim to put a bullet into anyone who might dare interfere with Clementine’s plan to corner the beef market is her feisty sister-in-law Iris (Kirsten Vangsness), disadvantaged only by the fact that she’s shooting blind, literally blind, so “aim” is a relative term.

There’s hardly a Western archetype that playwright Robens hasn’t made sure to include in his latest opus.

rio 60 He’s created Rosarita (Grace Eboigbe), a sexy Spanish saloon madam torn between (guess which) two lovers; ranch hands Billy and Flapjack (Michael Holmes and Nicholas S. Williams), whose “My gun is bigger than yours” wordplay serves as foreplay for some horseplay that could teach Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis and Jack a lesson in man-on-manplay; Filipino cook/handyman Ding-Ding Macadangdang (Gene Michael Barrera), Rio Hondo’s stand-in for Bonanza’s Hop Sing; and assorted townspeople, saloon hostesses, and good guys/bad guys adding up to a cast of nearly four dozen characters brought to life by fifteen supremely talented thesps.

rio 53 What this review has only begun to suggest is the number of laughs-per-minute that get generated throughout Rio Hondo’s two-hour running time, though anyone who caught Robens’ Entropy will have an idea of how often they will be LOL-ing.

A director less inspired than Jaime Robledo might have had his actors play it for laughs (and therefore lose them) rather than play it straight and score a corralful of chuckles, giggles and guffaws.

rio 65 Adding to the evening’s many delights is the ingenuity with which Robledo and his design team have recreated big-screen action on a 40-seat theater stage—a stagecoach constructed and taken apart right before your eyes, sawhorses taking the place of galloping stallions, a cattle-branding sequence with a “teddy-cow” standing in for a full-sized one, and a plummet down a deep mine shaft that is as hilarious as it is cleverly executed.

In his deliciously straight-faced (i.e. delectably comedic) star turn as Bert, Best Lead Actor Scenie winner Sanders is the next best thing to John Wayne circa 2015. Theatre Of NOTE treasures Phelan and Vangsness give Linda Darnell, Claire Trevor, Grace Kelly, and Barbara Stanwyck a run for their money as two very different women in Bert’s life. Kiyomura steals scenes right and left as the Mexicano bent on making our hero’s life a living infierno.

rio 29 Holmes and Williams couldn’t be more homolicious as the hot-for-each-other Billy and Flapjack, Eboigbe’s luscious Rosarita and Barrera’s pabulously Pinoy Ding-Ding are thick-accented treats, and all four step into additional shoes when needed.

Supporting cast members David Bickford, Krista Conti, Scott Golden, Mandi Moss, Lynn Odell, Stephen Simon, and Lauren Van Kurin each bring four to five distinct characters to hilarious, often gender-bending life. (The women-as-mustachioed-men are a particular treat here.)

rio 1 To better approximate the CinemaScope screen that became de rigueur in the 60s for Westerns both Hollywood and Spaghetti, scenic designer Pete Hickok has reconfigured Theatre Of NOTE for the widest possible “CinemaStage” aspect ratio, with Ben Rock’s centerstage projections reproducing the big-sky panoramas that formed the backdrop of countless classic Westerns, the town saloon on one side and Clementine’s beef ranch on the other. (Kudos go too to prop master Michael O’Hara, who has equipped just about every cast member with his or her own personal firearm.)

Matt Richter does double duty as both sound and lighting designer in one of his most spectacular efforts to date. (I’m told there are some 1400 sound and light cues in all, including more gunshots than I could possibly count, and a just-right musical soundtrack by composer Ryan Johnson in Dimitri Tiomkin/Alfred Newman mode.)

Costumes by Kimberly Freed pay tribute to one Western archetype after another in addition to being designed for lightning-quick backstage changes, wigs and mustaches aiding in multiple transformations.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of fists a-flying, fight choreography provided by the masterful Mike Mahaffey.

On a more serious note, no play I’ve seen has made me understand the roots of American’s gun culture better than Rio Hondo.

rio 43 Rio Hondo is produced for NOTE by Opiate Of The Masses. Lauren Letherer is assistant to the producer. Aaron Saldaña does mind-boggling stage manager duty up in the sound/lighting booth. Justin Brinsfield, Conti, Eric Neil Gutierrez, Jonathon Lamer, Arlene Marin, Robert Paterno, Dan Wingard, and Silvie Zamora are understudies/swings.

The Western may have bitten the dust by the end of the 1960s but thanks to home video (and Theatre Of NOTE), the Wild West lives on for Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials in Rio Hondo.

I for one had one whoop ‘n’ holler of a good time!

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Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 4, 2015
Photos: Kevin Sharp



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