Alberta Theatre Projects has been waiting a long time to put on Cowgirl Up. It was meant to be mounted back in March of 2020. It has been nurtured and developed since then to see its premiere in 2022. Anna Chatterton’s play, inspired by some fierce cowgirls who were some of the finest barrel racers, is a production with some aspects that are winners and some that don’t quite work. It makes for an overall shaky production of this new play.
Cowgirl Up is the story of 3 goddesses who used to be star cowgirls when they raced barrels. Effie (Karen Johnson-Diamond) is the one who is focused on technique. As they watch the racing from the “holding room” in the sky, all of Effie’s commentary is focused on technique. Joyce (Katelyn Morishita) is focused on how someone looks and the performance of it all, while BB (Rebbekah Ogden) is all about the horses and that connection. These characters are incredibly flat. This entire section of dialogue is tedious and annoying, as it seems to try and play on character dynamics, but the dialogue is tired.
The goddesses then make a bet on Cassidy (Cara Rebecca) and her horse Starbright (Darcy Gerhart) and whether they can train her to win a barrel racing championship. They come down to Earth, the bet plays out very predictably and Cassidy makes it to the top of the ranks. But then she lets loose, meets Jed (Richard Lee Hsi) and makes a series of terrible decisions that affect her riding career and her horse.
For a play that has been nurtured for this long, it shouldn’t be so weak in its delivery. The characters are canned, the plot and motivations are thin, and ultimately the play doesn’t have very much to say. For a mostly all female production, Cassidy is attracted to a male chauvinist who insults her and her sport. Hsi is actually really strong in his portrayal of Jed, as he is slimy and arrogant. He also displays his versatility when he plays different horses in the production. It’s a shame that director Christine Brubaker didn’t make use of Hsi’s dancing skills, as that would have been an amazing addition to the production. Morishita and Johnson Diamond are decent artists, but don’t have much to work with in this script. Ogden fits in the middle nicely, but also is not given much depth. The saving grace is Gerhart’s Starbright. At first this interpretation of a horse is a bit off the mark, but the charm then grows. This device then becomes the best aspect of the second half of the production.
Narda McCarroll’s set and lighting design has the set looking like an old barn and helps to emphasize the ‘magic’ of the godesses. Cathleen Sbrizzi’s costume design has some great choices for the horses, as they are costumed with tails and manes, but still look human, while the helmet that BB is always wearing is a bit of a headscratcher. Peter Moller’s sound design helps to illustrate the tension in the play and hats off to Tania Alvarado’s choreography, making the horses move like horses, and designing a barrel race as a dance.
Cowgirl Up has good inspiration at its core and some great artists surrounding it. But in the end, it doesn’t take it to the finish line. The narrative needs a lot more training.
Alberta Theatre Projects’ next show is The Jungle Book. More information is available online.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird