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Review: COYOTE ON A FENCE at Dirt Dogs Theatre

Review: COYOTE ON A FENCE at Dirt Dogs Theatre

A moving portrayal of death row inmates playing through Nov. 5th at the MATCH.

COYOTE ON A FENCE continues Dirt Dogs Theatre Company's tradition of doing male-centered pieces that ask hard questions about morality and what it means to be a man. This play by Bruce Graham follows two prisoners on death row as they get to know each other before their last day. John Brennan is an inmate who writes a newspaper that eulogizes the convicts, and he's a smart educated guy who believes in the duality of men. His death notices never include the crimes of the convicted. He is in prison for kicking a drug dealer to death. He gets put next to Bobby Reyburn who seems sweet enough ... a redneck boy who likes to do animal impressions and watch soap operas. But Bobby is a member of the Aryan nation, and he is on the row for burning down an African American church with worshippers inside. Is one more evil than the other? Can redemption find them both?

This is a morally complex piece of theater, and luckily the cast is up to the challenge of bringing these people to life without judgment or any trace of hesitation. The language, the situations, the truths, are all difficult matters that have to be handled directly and confidently. Jimmy Vollman brings an eloquence to the role of John Brennan that is admirable and gripping. The character is based on a real-life Texas inmate, and Jimmy fleshes the man out fully. The same can be said for Kyle Clark who manages to bring Bobby Reyburn to life in an equally believable way. He has a masterful sense of innocence about everything including his own crime. We love Bobby, but then become horrified as we realize his beliefs and his crimes are unspeakable. Vollman and Clark carry the bulk of the play with scenes that volley dialogue back and forth, and the two make us examine their death row inmates in ways we never expect. The brilliance of their performances comes out in how much we like and care for these men.

Destyne Miller plays a prison guard, and she gets some of the best scenes being interviewed by an unseen reporter at a local bar. The actress pulls off a myriad of different notes and textures. She's funny, but completely tough when she needs to be. Her character inserts a much needed balance to the show adding a diverse voice to the world of this prison. She commands the stage even when she is simply standing and watching her wards. Curtis Barber portrays a New York Times reporter who comes to interview Bobby about his obituary project for the inmates. He too adds a voice of reason capably, and he inserts a sense of decency by asking the questions the audience are swirling around in their head as the play progresses. We wonder how this guard and this reporter can enter a world of wrongs and not be influenced somehow.

This could be a simple play where only the dialogue is presented, but amazingly Dirt Dogs creates a full-scale production where every technical element adds to the piece. There is a fully realized two-story set which recreates two complete prison cells executed in painstaking detail by Santiago Speda. Trevor Cone's sound design is a marvel as well, always creating what is needed at every beat. Add to all of this the deft direction of Malinda Beckham, and you have a show that defies its grassroots heritage. Beckham utilizes every inch of the set, often guiding actors through movements that take them around and up through an imposing structure to highlight the power of the word and the world simultaneously.

COYOTE ON A FENCE is an ambitious play that asks the audience to grapple with what it means to be on death row. Is a man who has committed an atrocity but believes in God less guilty than one whose crime is comprehensible yet he has not asked for forgiveness? Does being around these types of men influence the people who work there? The play offers no conclusions, but rather is content leaving you in a state of reflection wondering for yourself what the true answers could be. This is not an easy play to tackle, and yet Dirt Dogs turns in a fully realized well-thought out show. The cast never misses a beat, and the technical aspects support them at every turn. COYOTE ON A FENCE represents some of the best of Houston Theater this fall.

COYOTE ON A FENCE runs through November 5th at the MATCH in Midtown. Check their site for tickets and showtimes. Street parking is available around the complex, and there are paid lots and a parking garage closeby.

Photograph provided by Gary Griffin featuring Kyle Clark as Bobby & Jimmy Vollman as John

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