Despite its title, Theatre Forever’s Good Job Horses isn’t a Western, or at least not exactly. It’s more of a broad comedy, except when it’s a sly satire, or when it’s a surrealist social commentary. It’s metaphorical, metaficitional and magical-realist at various turns, and it’s packed with somber guitar strumming and unexpected gunshots. This play is all over the place, is what I’m saying. That’s both its particular charm and its greatest failing.
The story, such as it is, involves three desperadas who tumble into a secluded hotel looking to lay low after a robbery gone bad. They’re flush with cash but seem largely indifferent to their haul - they’re more interested in using the bills for bandaging their wounds than for living the high life. The women are greeted by an enigmatic caretaker named Ray (Ryan Patrick), seemingly the hotel’s only employee, who informs them that they’re just in time to take part in a women’s retreat focused on embracing one’s Divine Femininity. Also, they’re being pursued by a trio of sentient, mustachioed cacti with guns.
As you can probably tell from that synopsis, Good Job Horses is heavy on the absurdism, and that’s mostly to its advantage. Jon Ferguson’s off-kilter direction casts a hazy dreaminess over the proceedings as the women float from room to room, with Ray forever tagging along as the benevolent guide-turned-fellow-traveler. Characters bounce off of each other at obtuse angles, talking circles around everything from menstruation to money to matricide, seldom arriving at anything like a resolution. Kate Tarker’s script is rich with wordplay and willful misunderstandings, to the point where it’s often unclear if any of the characters have the first idea what any of the others are talking about.
That makes for fun viewing, certainly, but it’s also somewhat exhausting. Good Job Horses doesn’t really employ scenes or set pieces, instead letting the happenings melt into one another in a way that makes it difficult to identify stakes or establish sympathies. As the women gradually drop their defenses and embrace the luxury of the retreat, their individual personalities begin to surface - Jessie (Carly Wicks) is the brash de facto leader, Avery (Charlotte Calvert) is a spacey optimist, Quinn (Kate Tarker) is haunted and neurotic - but it’s hard to get a handle on what’s at stake for any of them. Dreaminess and uncertainty are important elements of the play’s structure, but the characters show so many flashes of charisma that it’s slightly maddening to have them repeatedly pulled away just as we’re beginning to connect.
The major thread that ties all of this together is an ongoing exploration of identity, particularly femininity. It’s evident early on that the serendipitous “retreat” is not a wholly terrestrial phenomenon, a notion confirmed once the hotel itself begins speaking to the visitors. Instead, it’s a web of metaphor and self-discovery that leads each woman on a tour of her own emotions, intellect and sexuality. That all makes Good Job Horses sound headier than it really is. This is a comedy, after all, albeit a fairly hit-or-miss one. The show does mine some big laughs from everything from New Age philosophy to double entendres to scatalogical sight gags, but it also generates its share of awkward silences.
The most reliable laugh creator isn’t any of the women, but Ryan Patrick’s Ray, an inscrutable, gay hotelier with a disarming Southern drawl and a peculiar bond with his place of employment. As the play’s lone male figure, Ray stands mostly at arm’s length and acts as a vessel for the women’s journeys before eventually indulging in some self-discovery himself. It’s the show’s flashiest role, abetted nicely by Patrick’s winningly laconic performance. Still, it feels like a bit of a problem when the most memorable character in a play expressly focused on the nuances of womanhood happens to be the only man on stage.
That may be Good Job Horses in a nutshell. So many of its strengths - and there are plenty of them - double as weaknesses. Genuinely funny dialogue undercuts worthwhile points, atmospheric direction obscures the narrative, intriguing character quirks surface and fade without much development. Some of the obfuscation is intentional and in keeping with the play’s absurdist structure, but the net result is a confusing, disorienting theater experience that feels constantly on the verge of either blasting off or crashing to the ground. Ultimately it doesn’t quite do either, instead hovering midair as an enjoyable, ambitious production that nevertheless feels as if it hasn’t lived up to its full potential.