The world of Coyote looms wide as a malevolent paradise, lurking beneath the desert stars on a series of moonless nights…explosive and feral, a native cathedral of the mytho-poetic and surreal. “It smells so clean, so fresh and pure” marvels wide-eyed Luke, a Minuteman novice “in Tucson real estate” who accompanies racist, sex-obsessed, knife-toting Vince out into remote coyote arroyos to patrol for illegals. From the cramped cab of Vince’s truck, crude initiation rites unfold over shared cheap booze, and darker truths slither forth over two tension-packed acts, brimming with textual richness and evocative imagery. “I’m more of a lone wolf, myself,” growls Vince. He may just as well reflect the true nature of Coyote’s playwright and UT Austin Michener MFA Fellow Kevin Kautzman, a ferocious writer for the ‘recession generation” who hurls metaphor, alliteration and theatrical convention into a universe inhabited by the likes of Sam Shepard, John Milton and James Joyce with defiant abandon. Text isn’t just engaging and entertaining with Kautzman at the keyboard, and it is funny as all heck. It’s razor-sharp deadly while grounding in unexpected life reverence, honoring the intimate details that make ordinary existence anything but. But what would you expect from a history and philosophy major with an iconoclastic, literary bent and perverse social consciousness?
What seems at first like a simple buddy drama with a couple of harmless kooks in Stetsons soon shows itself as desert hell under El Cojote’s curse. Nobody is exactly what you expect (no spoilers from me). Ironically, the play’s only moral compass emerges from the boozy, twisted maw of the ‘crazy old F*** ‘racist who thinks his truck is an altar, that ‘the white man is the new nigger’ and that it’s perfectly okay to strew the desert with the teeth of Mexican children he murders. Nouveau 47 featured Kautzman’s Coyote at its inaugural New Works/New Voices Festival in 2011. It’s the opening production of the Nouveau 47 2012 season and the premiere full-scale production of the play anywhere. And my vote for the best written play currently on stage in this region, bar none.
Kautzman wrote Coyote with support from a Jerome Fellowship from Minneapolis’ Playwrights’ Center. The play is this year’s winner of the respected International Student Playscript Prize and Repertory Theatre Iowa’s Alpha Project Award. Inspired by Arizona’s passage of controversial immigration legislation, Kautzman says he completed the first draft of the play in 72 hours. Through a succession of readings, he has winnowed it down from 100 to 70 pages’ worth of material. Last year the UK National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough performed a staged reading. “It was very well-received and understood. The audiences loved the colloquialism. Great Britain has its share of xenophobia and racism, so the subject matter made total sense.”
In Nouveau 47’s intimate theatre space in the Magnolia Lounge at Fair Park, Coyote comes to life on a rough gravel-scrunching rectangular slab, a minimalist imagining with a chill wall of desert starscape projected behind the action (William Anderson, scenic design, Stephanie Busing, video design). Center stage in both acts sits Vince’s red pick up truck, establishing the reality of the play’s world but also limiting visibility of interaction and movement at times when Luke and Vince sit in the cab. Donny Covington directs his ensemble of three in a straightforward, naturalistic style, using the space in a traditional presentational manner for the most part. The script cascades in an ebb and flow of beats and character arcs that don’t get as much emphasis in this production as merited. Tension builds with jackhammer precision to a crescendo of chaos in the final scene, which should leave the audience breathless and trembling, wishing they could dive for cover as Armageddon unleashes. Unfortunately, a decision was made to downplay the play’s culminating confrontation. The low-key finale feels odd, a bit of a let down, but not due to any limitations on the acting ensemble’s part.
In what may very well become on of the most memorable performances of the year, Art Peden takes Vince the racist bigot to a masterful place far beyond stereotype, a philosopher-king gone Juarez bad. Peden manages to make “Gramps” a sympathetic character, in spite of his brutish atrocities and sexual perversity. He reveals a lonely older man who possesses a genuine soft spot for his young companion and sincere conviction about the morality of his warped “mission” and a capacity for violence usually reserved for Coen Brothers’ films.
His portrayal is fascinating and repellent all at once, spine-chilling and surprising but eminently consistent in following the character’s arc. Stephen Witcowicz plays Luke dumb and innocent, a vapid tabula rasa, providing the majority of the play’s humor and conning the audience and Vince like a schoolboy brown-noser. He’s come to the desert for his own sordid reasons but finds himself cursed, once he crosses nature’s boundary. Romance spoils the game for Luke, as his hormones lead him astray with the arrival of his sultry, loquacious Mexican girlfriend Anna, played by Marti Etheridge. Wasn’t it Eve who led gullible Adam astray in the Garden of Eden with the gift of forbidden fruit? She beckons with such allure but what a price she exacts. Etheridge’s wild girl emerges from the desert ridges, from the company of El Cojote and spins a magical grandmother’s tale about fire fit to please Clarissa Pinkola-Estes (Women Who Run With the Wolves). Etheridge embraces the focused realistic in her portrayal as directed but seems to find mystical, mythic levels in her character as written as well. There are no simple answers to the complex questions posed by Kevin Kautzman in Coyote. Astonishing beauty mixed with visceral horror. The play has its final performances February 9, 10 and 11 at Nouveau 47 Theatre in the Magnolia Lounge at Fair Park, 1121 First Ave., Dallas, TX 75210
Kevin Kautzman is making the most of his Michener MFA Fellowship in Playwriting and Screenwriting at UT Austin. His “internet sex comedy” ( as in Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Delights” or Dante’s Inferno) “If You Start A Fire …” is currently nosing about for reading and production opportunities, and he’s working on other intriguing stage and film projects. Check him out at kevinkautzman.com and on facebook. He’ll be back at Nouveau 47 in March, teaching a writing workshop. Sign up if you dare….
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