Fort Worth — “Once upon a time...” begins Johnny Simons’ tale of two brothers, Luke of the Lake and Will of the Woods (a cartoon fantasy), the final play of Hip Pocket Theatre’s 41st season.
It’s as simple as that. And yet.
With Simons himself narrating the story, his voice sonorous and slow as a dream, we know we are once again in the land of his memory and imagination. The elements combine, so familiar after all these years: a small house between lake and forest, a young boy (or two), a wise and loving elder, and flora and fauna more alive than we might expect—in this case, a loving cat and dog (Rebo Hill and Jeff Stanfield are adorable), and an ancient, branch-waving tree (Thad Isbell manages to be both majestic and twangy, a good trick).
And it’s Texas for sure, the same Texas the audience hears in the crickets and cicadas that serenade the outdoor performance (and, on opening night, the sounds of Friday night football from a playing field along the same country road). The Texas that appears in the videos chronicling the story of few-words brothers Will (Damek Salazar) and Luke (Derek Salazar) is the Texas we’ve walked across to reach the theater: scrub oak and dusty soil, dry grass and big sky.
Old Granny (a serene, shining-faced JoAnn Gracey) raises Will and Luke after their parents, in the way of fairy tales, “disappear.” Luke loves the lake, Will loves the woods, and both love each other—though boylike, the love reveals itself mostly in horseplay, not hugs. Old Granny reads from Genesis—the ultimate “once upon a time”—and lets us know there is a bad secret yet to be revealed.
So far, so simple. But then there’s Betty Boop (Christina Cranshaw). Granny reveals a surprising past—she’s a living link to Fort Worth’s show-biz history—and her thoughts weave all of that, somehow, into the story of Betty Boop, a spit-curled, flirty, hoochie-coochie-dancing cartoon star of the 1930s. And in the way of dreams, La Boop’s name is no sooner spoken than there she is, both on-screen and for real (or as real as this story gets)—short-skirted and squeaky voiced, a dream “goil” for a country boy to dream on.
Christina Cranshaw is flirty and alluring as Betty—and surprisingly blunt. What’s up with the big stone, Will? The one you use for a pillow? It seems she’s there to break the frozen stillness of this circular life by the lake—to shake things up and get life moving forward again.
At a few moments, Luke is so rough-hewn and simple we wonder how any of it works—but it holds the attention, especially of longtime Johnny-watchers in the audience.
There is a truly elegiac feel about Simons’ fleeting 45-minute piece with its childlike set of a wooden rocker at center stage. Luke feels like the culmination of a long and improbable artistic journey that for Simons (and all of us hereabouts) began in the 1970s with plays of remarkable size and wild extravagance. And now we have come full circle, perhaps, to a bare stage and a yarn-spinning granny—theater pared down to the essentials of storyteller and listener.
And from here, Mr. Simons? Luke of the Lake and Will of the Woods ends with lines Prospero might have spoken if he’d been raised in these parts. Simons’ brand of “rough magic” has served Hip Pocket well for more than 40 years. In this play, we feel, for the first time, a grace-note, and a kind of ending.