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Rodeo and Julie-Ed (1999)

Rodeo and Julie-Ed
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Rodeo and Julie-Ed

Peter Skagen

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First produced at the Symons Valley Ranch (Calgary, Alberta) in 1999, Rodeo and Julie-Ed is a musical/dinner theatre romp in the Shakespeare corral––and a country-western adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The premise of the show is a transposition of the Capulet/Montague feud from Verona and Mantua to the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys in the Appalachians along the border between West Virginia and Kentucky. The latter feud, which has attained folkloric status in the history of the South in the United States, was a prolonged battle between two families in an area where this sort of violence was common. Moreover, aspects of the Hatfield/McCoy feud involved disputes over intermarriage (in one instance in 1887 Ran'l McCoy, who had been waiting for West Virginia to extradite the Hatfields accused of his sons' deaths, organized a raid into Hatfield territory, seized a McCoy who had married a Hatfield, and brought him back to Kentucky).

Skagen's Rodeo and Julie-Ed, then, an "interactive dinner theatre and barn dance," resituates not only Romeo and Juliet, but also the Hatfields and the McCoys into a Western Canadian context, the entire premise of interactive dinner theatre of its sort being the mix of the cast with the audience in the here and now of the theatrical moment. The blending of a touchstone Shakespeare play like Romeo and Juliet with well-known American historical narratives in Western Canada perhaps signals the kinds of theatrical gestures that work best in the commercial contexts of dinner theatre, where financial exigencies, in large part, drive the content of performances. Skagen, a native Calgarian, has an extensive background working in the United States (Los Angeles), and has worked as a screenwriter, playwright, actor, and singer. Skagen's background in the States and the commercial contexts of dinner theatre––not to mention the blend of the Shakespeare effect with American cultural lore, then, suggest a canny sense of what may appeal to Western Canadian audiences.

The play focuses on the annual Wailin' Valley barn dance  where the trailer-park Hatfields and the wealthy McCoys reunite to reignite their twenty-five year old feud. The love story has Ferris Wayne, nephew of the Prince of Country music (played by Skagen in the production), attend the barn dance where he asks for the hand of Julie-Edwina McCoy, even though he hasn't seen her since kindergarten. When Rodeo, Julie-Ed's love, appears, the scene is set for a replay of the Romeo and Juliet story. As the program notes state: "Amid waves of country music, pie eating contests, mock talk shows aimed at getting to the bottom of the feud, dancing, balcony scenes, gunfights, duels, confessions, and a bit of magic, the lovers struggle to be together. Will they? Or will it end in tragedy, like Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers?"

As interactive theatre, Rodeo and Julie-Ed begins in the parking lot of the theatre with the actors in character and playing to the audience as it arrives. The playscript carefully notes the different functions each actor must fulfill in this crucial first contact with the audience, Ferris Wayne, for instance having to establish himself as an "ass-kisser" to the powerful McCoys, while shamelessly promoting his uncle, Wayne B. Wayne, who is the main singing attraction of the show. The playscript makes use of numerous referents from popular cultural including many tilts of the hat at well-known musical references––"Stand by Your Man," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"––the show ending on a proverbial high note with Wayne singing Thank God I'm A Country Boy after the families have settled their differences.

Critical reception of the play (especially in relation to Shakespeare) varied: most critics attended to the Shakespearean rewriting calling the play a Shakespeare revamp or a borrowed tragedy with others baldly stating "There is nothing remotely like Shakespeare in this little saga" (http://www.greatwest.ca//ffwd/Issues/1999/1111/the 2.html). The gap between the two kinds of reception for the play suggests the extent to which adaptation remains a contested field of theatrical and critical activity: for some, clearly, it is enough to take the generic plot of Romeo and Juliet, add a pun on the title, and then let Shakespeare's cultural capital roll in. For others, the radical transposition that Skagen makes away from the tragicv contexts of the Shakespearean source text, signals the point at which adaptive practices cross over into dramaturgical bad faith enunciated in the Bard's name.

The transposition of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy into dinner theatre farce, blended with the country and western feel (the audience ate from a roast beef buffet as the play took place), and the use of heavily Americanized cultural referents make Rodeo and Julie-Ed a singular example of the ways in which Canadian popular theatre responds to the cultural influences of its neighbour to the South. In this case, Shakespearean adaptation is as much about how Canadians filter those American cultural influences as it is about invoking Shakespeare for name recognition.

Daniel Fischlin

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