Image courtsey Hella Fresh Theater/john rosenberg

Placing The Scent of ‘Cowboy Cologne’ (Review)

If you’re not from Los Angeles you might not know too much about Culver City. Sure, you may occasionally hear the name while listening to NPR–that’s where their West Coast headquarters are located–but you may not know more than that.

For instance: Culver City is the home of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who took up ownership of the old MGM lot years ago. The MGM lot was–is–one of the great pillars of Hollywood. Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and E.T. were all filmed on here. Culver City is a movie town, and it is also home to two of LA’s most significant theaters: Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas and the Tim Robbins’ The Actor’s Gang.

Culver City is also now where you will find Hella Fresh Theater which in its current form is a series of apartment-set plays, put together by john rosenberg. On a recent Friday I found myself in a ground floor apartment a block away from the Sony lot to see his latest work, a two-hander about military wives set in 1989 Virginia called Cowboy Cologne.

Theater doesn’t really come in a more indie package than being staged in someone’s living room. Hella Fresh is a company that rosenberg has taken with him from San Francisco to Philadelphia and now Culver. This latest incarnation managed to pop up in the midst of LA’s immersive renaissance, and I’ve been meaning to check out Hella Fresh since last October.

Cowboy Cologne is–strictly speaking–a site-specific piece. The apartment becomes the home of Lee (Alexandra Lee), a woman making her living playing princess characters at kids parties. One evening Pamela (Ellen Humphries), a young Navy wife with a shipped out wreck of a husband, shows up at her doorstep. It’s unclear at first what Pamela is doing there–has she come to book a party, or is she a kind of stalker–and for a fun but oddly tense first scene just what Pamela’s motivation is remains elusive.

There’s something of Beckett in the way the characters talk around the point of what’s actually going on. Enough so that I somewhat want to knock rosenberg the writer for a script that is more playful than it is coherent while at the same time praising rosenberg the director for getting fantastic performances out the actors with this elliptical material. (There’s also something ironic in the Beckettian echoes, given that Endgame recently closed up the street at the Kirk Douglas, and the posters had yet to come down the day I saw the show.)

The tone rosenberg manages to strike isn’t exactly naturalism, but neither is it your common high-voltage improv hash. You know the type: that screeching cartoon representation of humanity masquerading as entertainment. That’s not what we find here. Instead, Humphreys and Lee deftly trace a high wire act through the script’s absurdities. There’s a manic touch in Humphreys that feels honestly motivated by Pamela’s insecurity, while Lee’s scattered-ness is anchored in a palpable hint of loss.

While the tone is it’s own beast the staging itself makes all the natural sense in the world. There’s smart use of the availible space, entrances, and fields of view of both actors, along with a rather clever attention to the olfactory senses. (Subtle enough that it’s not worth giving away.)

For both better and worse this is a play where no one ever speaks clearly about what they are after or why they are who they are. This is something I can appreciate as a step beyond the kind of exposition-heavy kludge you often find haunting indie theatre. Yet at the same time, rosenberg’s script often feels more interested in climbing into an absurdist view for its own sake, leaving room for flashes of insight into what’s really going on every now and then. Could this be a nod to the chronic alcoholism that both characters are soaked in? I’m unsure at this point if a closer examination of the work would yield more insight or a deeper confusion.

There’s one sequence involving a racial slur that is easy to imagine two Virginian military wives in 1989 being apt to use, if not entirely comfortable with. It’s presence feels somewhat gratuitous — and no, it’s not the n-word, but a more obscure yet no less ugly one — and what prompts its use doesn’t do much more than hint at the world that these characters live in, without cracking the bone and getting to the marrow of it.

That’s the heart of my trouble with the piece: because the cast’s willingness to throw themselves into the meat of any scene and rosenberg’s steady directorial hand suggests that an intimate and cinematic production is well within his company’s grasp. There’s a kind of mojo here, and it bodes seeing what gets stirred up.

Cowboy Cologne plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through June 25th. Tickets are just $10 and include access to the drinks in the fridge. Limited seating, obviously.