In all the glorification of the West in this part of the world -- cowboy poetry festivals, rodeos, gold camp re-enactments -- there is inevitably something missing. Have you noticed? Among all those cows and aged wranglers and wizened miners, there is almost never a woman seen. Occasionally a cowboy singer will say something about his mama as he's dying on the range -- but the story is really more about the bull that gored him. Or a horny wrangler will intone about his sweet girlfriend -- but the story's really about the duel he fought over her. The real women are AWOL, substituted by some idealized mama or sister or lover back home.
More's the pity, since although there may have been more men than women in the days of westward expansion, women there were, and they have some amazing tales to tell. Fortunately for Colorado Springs, these stories are the focus of Laura Tesman's new play Pistols and Petticoats, now in its debut run at the Bon Vivant Theater. Tesman, who is an assistant professor of visual and performing arts at UCCS, has taken a huge number of primary sources and adapted them to a collage of women's stories in the West. Using letters, diaries, poetry and other documents, Tesman has patched together a quilt of many stories, all with women at the center.
Beginning fittingly with the story of Sarah Winnemucca (Anjelica Bencomo), Tesman shows how at least one native population welcomed the white settlers as long-lost siblings, only to have their hospitality turn into a nightmare. One of the most moving moments of the play is where a settler woman left alone and an Indian woman without her family express fears that are almost identical, each equally afraid of the other, each lonely and vulnerable because of what each race has done to the other.
Pistols and Petticoats is especially strong in its depiction of the trap of women who are trying to make a life for themselves alone, either as prostitutes or as schoolteachers. The limited options, the dependence on men, and the degradation of the professions -- especially for the prostitutes -- come at a terrible cost and the options remain few.
This is largely a student-acted production, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell if it weren't announced at the beginning. In part, that is because the acting is strong and, in part, because the production itself works especially well as a student piece as no actor is required to sustain long scenes, but instead comes on and off the bare set quite quickly. The set itself is simple in the extreme -- a single canted platform with steps, a small fringe of dry grasses and flowers backlit to evoke the prairies. Skillful lighting, a simple guitar and excellent costuming fill out the production.
What Tesman and her crew have done is to be evocative instead of comprehensive, to allow the small parts to represent the whole. With this synecdoche, they have begun to fill the huge hole left by our mythology of the West. Rather than gunfights, bar fights and cattle drives, they have branded a picture of childbearing, domestic toil, loneliness, hope and sorrow that will be hard to forget.
-- Andrea Lucard
Petticoats and Pistols
A TheatreWorks production
The Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Cragwood Drive (Austin Bluffs Parkway just west of Union Boulevard)
Showing through March 7: Thursday Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinee, 2 p.m.; Sunday matinee, 4 p.m.
Tickets are $15; group discounts and special student matinees available
Call 262-3232 for more, or log on to www.uccstheatreworks.com