Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage
Lighthearted Western Splatter Fest

Also see Bob's review of The Little Hours

Angela Della Ventura and Harry Patrick Christian
The Theatre Project at Union County College has been carving out a niche for itself as the purveyor of first class productions of popular Off and Off-Off-Broadway plays—a number of which seem edgy on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. In the mix have been campy gay entertainments the type of which have been attracting large straight audiences in the Big Apple for over thirty years. Still, progress is progress, and Theatre Project is definitely a New Jersey treasure. It is now summertime and the Theatre Project has come up with an intelligent, but strictly for laughs, unchallenging splatter fest of campy entertainment which will surely delight many, including the late adolescent, young adult crowd which fills the multiplexes every weekend.

Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage is its name, and it pokes gentle fun at the clichés of traditional western movies and gory horror films. Written by the prolific, pseudonymous Jane Martin, it is neither sharply satiric nor is anything ever at stake. It is essentially a comically heightened stage version of a cleverly plotted grade-B gore flick with a sense of humor. With its sharp and clever staging and a solid company of fine comic actors, Flaming Guns provides inoffensive entertainment for a contemporary audience.

Aging Big 8 has been forced to retire from the rodeo circuit, both because of injuries and the greater crowd appeal of sexy-on-a-float gals who do not possess a smidgeon of her talent. She has retired to a rented ticky-tacky house way out west. She employs her exceptional rodeo nurse/medic skills on injured rodeo stars who come there to convalesce. Affectionate love making is gladly provided to her as part of her compensation. The immature young Rob-Bob is her lover patient one 3 a.m., when the imposingly large and shapely She-Devil, insane with anger, bursts through the door. The out of sorts She-Devil has traveled 15,000 miles (the last 27 on foot) in search of Big 8's sexually predatory son Lucifer Lee, who, behaving in a manner not unusual for him, gave her kisses and promised the moon, impregnated and then abandoned her. Hot on her trail is her newly acquired monster-like Ukrainian drug dealing biker lover, Black Dog. Dog has cut off one of She-Devil's hands with a hatchet after catching her "jerking off" a rock star in a bar.

Also in the mix are Big 8's sister Shirl and her boyfriend Baxter. Shirl is a butcher in a local meat packing factory. If you don't think that her butchering skills and cutting tools will come in handy here, you have not been paying attention. The dim-witted Baxter is the local Deputy Sheriff.

The slim, physically unimposing Bev Sheehan is cast against type as Big 8, the normal person around whom the loonies explode. Sheehan manages to convincingly stand up to and tame that She-Devil. However, given her size, Sheehan has to perform physically over the top to fill Big 8's shoes. In the process, Sheehan adds enjoyable comedic touches to the role. Barbara Guidi has the perfect equipment for the role of the predatory She-Devil who so effortlessly turns the head of Rob-Bob. Stephen Medvidick brings conviction to the role of the naive Rob-Bob, who commits murder and mayhem while trying to live up to his delusional self-image as a hero out of his beloved old western movies. Will Budnikov makes a fiercely funny entrance as Black Dog and goes on to perform the evening's funniest physical comedy. When it is too late to do him any good, we learn that Black Dog may not be as bad as that She-Devil told us.

Angela Della Ventura is delightfully ditzy as Shirl, and Harry Patrick Christian brings a quizzical comic persona to the role of Dexter. The hero of the proceedings is director Mark Spina and his crack design, technical and stage crew. There is blood everywhere and anywhere, and only exactly where it is supposed to be. Given the intimate setting and the physical set-up (at Theatre Project, both audience and players are on the stage of a large curtained-off auditorium), the crisp, complex staging of the extended mayhem is nothing short of amazing.

Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage does not have the weight and grandeur of my favorite theatre gore fest, Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. More to the point here, it happily doesn't have the desperate excessive gore and cruelty of the 2006 stage musical Evil Dead. So just go with the flow (pun intended) and you will likely have quite a good time.

Flaming Guns of the Purple Stage continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm/ Sun. 3 pm) through August 3, 2008 at the Theatre Project at Union County College, 1033 Springfield Ave., Cranford, NJ 07016. Box Office: 908-659-5189/ online:

Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage by Jane Martin; directed by Mark Spina

Big 8…………………………………..Bev Sheehan
Rob-Bob………………………..Stephen Medvidick
She-Devil…………………………….Barbara Guidi
Shirl………………………….Angela Della Ventura
Black Dog…………………………...Will Budnikov
Baxter………………………Harry Patrick Christian
Donnie Pride…………………………....Chris Wood

Photo: Arnulfo Maldonado

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- Bob Rendell

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