Dallas — What's a sweet guy like Doom, loving husband and fond father, doing as a man on the run in the badlands of every old cowboy movie you ever saw?
Poor fellow fell into the title role of Doom McCoy & the Death Nugget, Justin Locklear's playful, busy spoof of lots of stuff we think happened in the early days of the American West, from six-shooter showdowns to railroad heists, from prairie-tough wives in bonnets to saloon-tough gals in hard-drinking saloons.
The play is figuratively a chase across a landscape of rugged mountain terrain, thanks to scenic artist IZK Davis and his handsome encircling murals, and literally a trip down the narrow aisles and onto the small stage at Ochre House Theater, where Locklear, longtime company member and award-winning puppet-master, directs his own show.
The show opens dramatically with a blaze of yellow light and a rush of wind, which we later learn in a kind of chanting song, signals the birth of Doom McCoy (appealingly innocent Chris Sykes, gamely drawling as he straddles his stick horse) born in the eye of a tornado, orphaned at birth, and brought into this cruel world without even a soul. How's that for a really miserable country-western song?
Before you can say tumblin' tumbleweeds, ill-fated Doom gets in deep trouble in a poker game and takes off chasing a train to retrieve the deed to his land, leaving his wife and cardboard puppet kids behind. Doom's not the fastest draw in the west, but he can get on that pony and ride, really, really fast.
Speed tripping away, Doom finds himself in a crazy place where everybody is horribly snaggle-toothed, and the bawdy saloon tart is a hairy dude (funny, sexy Will Acker, in or out of a bustier) in fishnet stockings and dusty boots. The malign madame (evil-eyed Olivia de Guzman) warns poor Doom about the outcome of the piece of metal lodged in his being, and how the fate of mankind and maybe the cosmos (I think) is involved in his eternal escape.
Doom takes off and runs and runs and runs some more, his trusty steeds shifting with the delightfully inventive props and puppets Locklear has threaded into the chase. Part of the fun is the surprise of the actor-puppet interface and the clever ways the action and puppets are projected onto the big covered wagon screen, prominent in Mathew Posey's set design. Famous 19th century-landscape paintings and bar room scenes, as well as familiar clips from iconic cowboy movies and other myth-sustaining Western images flash across the wagon's cover, faster and faster, as Doom makes another getaway.
Composer and music director Guzman provides accompanying music and the occasional requisite ballad for Doom's hapless flight, with several musicians in the ten-member acting ensemble doubling on guitar, violin, keyboard and percussion. When Doom does speak he favors old movie clichés like, "What in tarnation is goin' on?" Sometimes he tries to escape the mold. "I want to be the cowboy that lives," he pleads, in a scene with an Irish priest (Christopher Lew) he meets along the way.
Not only are the giant props and crazy horses a hoot, Ryan Matthieu Smith's beautiful darkly rainbow-stained ensemble costumes emulate the handsome backgrounds of old oil paintings. With a lavishly feathered head dress or a printed cotton bonnet, the actors in multiple roles become a devil or a stalwart prairie woman.
All chases, however cosmic, must end in the theater, and Locklear and company shift direction in the second act and guide their weary cowboy from the restless West to something like an Eastern vision, and the serious talk about soul-making tends to weight our fellow down considerably.
Doom and a handy Medicine Man (calmly certain Gregg Prickett) talk a while about clarity and truth and the way we like to live in a mirage of our own making and other stuff that has poor Doom scratchin' his cowboy hat. Ah, but then the black light comes on and another, more western sort of illumination occurs in this entertaining show that mines, once more, the much-plowed western mythos, and leaves us smiling.