Nouveau 47 Theatre
Directed by Donny Covington
Set Design - William Anderson
Video Design - Stephanie Busing
Stage Manager - Melissa Hennessey
Luke - Stephen Witcowicz
Vince - Art Peden
Anna - Marti Etheridge
Reviewed Performance 1/28/2012
Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The first thing you notice when you walk in to Nouveau 47's production of Coyote is William Anderson's set design. Under a spare lighting rig, a mid-sized red pickup truck sits in a raised bed of packed dirt on a thrust stage. On a projection screen above, video designer Stephanie Busing paints a desert sky, starlight shining over the dusty underbrush. The Margo Jones Theater at The Magnolia Lounge is transformed into a rocky patch of earth somewhere along the Arizona/Mexico border, where two men sit in this red truck, waiting. As striking as this initial image is, Nouveau 47's world premiere production doesn't live up to the standard of its own set ? or the author's script.
Inside the pickup truck are two men: a young guy listening to his iPod and an older man with a cowboy hat and five-o'-clock shadow sipping whiskey from a flask. The young guy is Luke, who works in "real estate" and seems a little out of place. Vince, the older, grizzled man, is a 12-year veteran of the Arizona Minutemen ? a group of men dedicated to watching the border and reporting any and all suspicious activity to the local sheriff or border authorities. From there, Coyote unfolds in multiple twists and turns, examining the morals and motivations behind the men who spend their spare time sitting in trucks and listening for the noise of drug gangs and human smugglers across the desert. I won't spoil the ending but it does become evident neither Luke nor Vince is what they appear to be.
Author Kevin Kautzman doesn't shy away from any topic or attitude, portraying Vince as a racist, homophobic bigot who nevertheless has a strong sense of pride and an even stronger point of view. The script tries to maintain constant moral ambiguity. Though a clear good and bad guy emerges, the moral motivation of each character is never fully resolved. Kautzman intentionally keeps things vague, leaving the audience guessing about his characters' motivations and past. There are echoes of Sam Shepard's broad, poetic metaphors of the American West in Kautzman's writing, though Coyote is a little more realistic and straightforward in its style.
The ambiguity, in fact, is the only problem with Kautzman's script. Trying to refrain from moral judgments, the author sometimes leaves the viewer scratching their head by not providing enough details. When Luke asks about what happens "unofficially" when an illegal is caught, Vince tells a story about how a family walking in the desert was once ditched by their handler in the desert. They scattered across the desert ? all except a little seven-year-old girl. That one moment is barely mentioned again, even as we see a turn in Vince's character. It's understandable that Kautzman wants to leave it to the audience to decide who's right and wrong in this thriller. Without enough specifics, though, it's hard to make a judgment call either way.
Nouveau's production of the play might be the bigger issue, as both the actors and director never fully dig into the meat of the play. Stephen Witcowicz's performance as Luke isn't ever believable. We learn over the course of the play that Luke is only posing as a potential vigilante, a fact that colors the rest of his time with Vince. Witcowicz plays Luke as awkward, timid and tongue-tied, and never gives any confidence that he could in fact be interested in protecting the border. Later on, when we do see flashes of bravado from Like, it's colored by the lack of depth provided in the first act. It seems as though there's far more levels to Luke's character, but Witcowicz renders him one-dimensional.
Art Peden is better as Vince, diving into the prideful bigotry of his character. Peden has no problem spewing filth and odd ideology about any number of subjects, from white pride to Norse mythology to prostitutes across the border. There are moments, however, where he plays incredibly important moments far too casually. Vince has a monologue near the end of the second act about how he once wound up having relations with a transsexual prostitute across the border. Believe it or not, this monologue becomes an important plot point near the end of the show.
Yet rather than tell this story with true regret and shame, Peden delivers it as a silly, meaningless anecdote. Only once does Peden let us see Vince's vulnerability, talking about the death of his wife, but even that moment ends with a joke. Peden is perfect on the surface but never allows the audience to explore the full depth of his character.
Marti Etheridge is the best of the cast as Anna. Divulging her character would reveal too much of the plot, so suffice to say that Etheridge's timing and character are fantastic. Etheridge shines in a story about the legend of "El Coyote", her one real chance to have the spotlight. Her only issue is her accent - though she's meant to be Mexican, Etheridge hits consonants a little too hard, drifting into an almost Russian accent. Still, she's perfect in her role, and gives some much-needed energy to the second act.
Because Coyote is dialogue driven and in a single location, director Donny Covington doesn't have a whole lot of staging, especially in the first act. As the action begins to ramp up though, the impressive set design becomes a real liability. Multiple times we miss crucial reactions behind the truck. At one point at the end, Vince stands right at the corner of the stage, back turned. Not only does the audience miss his entire emotional connection to the scene, but at least one side of the audience misses Luke's response behind Vince and the truck. Couple this with the miscues and missed connections between actors, and Covington seems to have only gone skin-deep in his vision of the show.
That seems to be the real problem with Coyote. Kautzman provides a script that has a lot of emotional and metaphorical depth for the actors and director to dig into despite its ambiguities. Too often though, Nouveau 47's production focuses far more on the image and tone of the production and less on the play itself. The two lead actors only skim the surface of their characters, giving the audience very little to care about. The director sacrifices multiple plot connections and character aspects for the singular image of a pickup truck on a patch of rocky desert. It's a stunning image, no doubt, but Coyote leaves the viewer wishing for much more than just a brilliant set design to sink their teeth into.
It's almost like a coyote ? howling all night at the moon, scaring prey, but only feeding as a scavenger, afraid to take a risk and attack its prey head on. Nouveau 47 never attacks Coyote with real teeth, only scratching the surface of a much deeper play.
Nouveau 47 at The Magnolia Lounge, 1121 First Avenue
Dallas, TX 75210
Plays through February 11th
Thursdays at 7:30 pm
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Sunday, Feb. 5th at 2:00 pm
Monday, Feb. 6th at 7:30 pm
Tickets are $18, $13 for students.
The Monday, Feb. 6th performance is "pay-what-you-can."
For more information call 214-674-1702 or visit www.nouveau47.com