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Sydney Review: Cowboy Mouth

Photo: Nicholas Denton as Slim and Diana Popovska in the role of Cavale.

Cowboy Mouth

By Sam Shepard and Patti Smith

Directed by Arky Michael

Hibernian House

Level 2, 342 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills

In a world where people are continually searching for something more, incessantly promised satisfaction yet left emptier than before, Cavale decides to create her own saviour.

She envisions a rock and roll saviour to take the place of a God that she claims is too distant from anyone and insufficient to represent human suffering. She kidnaps Slim to perform this very role. This volatile relationship forms the focus for the play, ricocheting from reluctant to passionate at a kinetic pace. Involving live music in true rock and roll style, and a singing Lobster Man for good measure, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s play Cowboy Mouth is radiant, driven by performers whose aching and probing for salvation seems tangible on stage.

Arky Michael, a very well-seasoned artist, directed Nicholas Denton as Slim and Diana Popovska in the role of Cavale.

Michael channelled the fervid energy of the performers to create the dichotomy of constant movement and yet claustrophobic entrapment. Often as an audience member you felt as if Slim and Cavale were continually progressing, having no knowledge of their exact destination, and yet you’d occasionally have the realisation that they were bogged down in one dilapidated hotel room, unable to venture to the outside.

This notion is extended by the fact that Cavale is actually holding Slim there at gunpoint, literally preventing him from venturing further – yet I felt as if the gun played a relatively marginal part in Slim’s stay, forgetting she possessed a weapon for a large segment of the play. The artists played with a concept verging towards Stockholm syndrome, where the captor falls in love with their captive, which contributed to the tumult in the relationship.

This work toys with the blurred boundaries between reality and the abstract. At times unnerving, and often very funny, it forces the audience to consider what truth we can find in a surreal world.

Cavale’s time spent in a mental institution opens the gate to the abstract, utilising her categorisation as mentally abnormal to present an alternative way of thinking.

The Lobster Man, portrayed by Jonny Hawkins, somewhat epitomises this diversion into an abstract world, being totally accepted as the norm to Slim and Cavale, and yet humorously unusual to the audience. Both Cavale and Slim have a deep connection to music and Cavale elevates the consecration of rock music and its potential to provide her and humanity with a saviour. Music is incorporated, perfecting the atmosphere and enhanced by the fantastic voices of Denton and Hawkins.

The dynamic relationship between Cavale and Slim was impeccably portrayed by Popovska and Denton on the stage. The complex relationship forms the crux of the play, and its excellent portrayal carried the play through to the end. This is crucial, considering the play can be confronting and occasionally bewildering to a Shepard newcomer. A constant exchange of impassioned emotion ensued, throughout arguments displaying their resentment for one another and converse scenarios where their immense love shone through.

The Hibernian House formed the ideal location for this play. Albeit, a difficult location to navigate as an Hibernian newbie, the building unfolds as an inner city labyrinthine wonderland, its graffiti-laden walls a fitting touch.

At one point during the play Slim calls Cavale to stop and listen to the traffic outside, at which point the audience paused to soak in the authentic Sydney traffic. Slim likened the noise to a river, which he admired because it travels wherever it pleases.

This created such a realistic image in my mind, and was a touch you couldn’t indulge in many theatre spaces. Furthermore, the theatre space resembled the slightly decrepit hotel room by its nature of an older building. The whole experience set the scene perfectly for Slim and Cavale’s space.

Cowboy Mouth is an archetypal example of independent theatre pushing the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm in common thought and compelling the audience to think deeply and differently.

Aside from the vital importance of supporting independent theatre, this specific play is significant and needs to be seen.

Perhaps Cavale’s words are true, that we “want a saint but with a cowboy mouth” to save us from our reality.

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