Where the Cheerleaders Still Eat Little Packages of Apple Sauce but the Football Players Wear Braids
by Mary Adkins
In The Pony Palace/FOOTBALL, written and directed by TINA SATTER and performed by the wacky and talented company HALF STRADDLE, opened last night at The Bushwick Starr. The all-female cast delivers a hilarious picture of a world where angst-y teens try to impress each other, dismiss each other, have trouble saying what they mean and believe the whole world is only as big as their surroundings—the Pony Palace football stadium. Except in this play, the football players, the Owls, are girls. And as we follow them through a season of being coached by the glamorous, passive aggressive Coach Betts (GLENNIS MCMURRAY), who sports a baby pink cap, flashy silver hoop earrings and speaks to her assistant, the rational and straightforward Maureen (MOE ANGELOS) as if she is an idiot, it even feels like high school, just minus the boys. And truthfully, it doesn’t feel like anything is missing.
Don’t be mistaken—there is no lack of testosterone on the field, where the players trash talk, give each other noogies and foster serious competitive spirit. But they also rehearse their trash-talking, fix their hair when they’re pulled out of a headlock, call plays like “sparrow glitter” and cheer to “never faking a rough.” JESS BARBAGALLO (playing Dara, quarterback), conveys so much heart that during a particularly painful defeat near the end of the play, you want to run on stage and hug her. The rest of the team—NIKKI CALONGE (Sasha, running back), ERIN MARKEY (Trace, wide receiver) and JULIA SIRNA-FREST (Kayla, left tackle)—match her energy. They’re competitive with one another, but also sweet; they push and tease one another, but it doesn’t feel mean-spirited. At the end of the season, Barbagallo reflects that she’s tried so hard, ridden the bus so many times and “laughed harder than I’ll ever laugh.” It’s a line that rings true as not just as a female sentiment, but as a universally youthful one that sent me back: caring so much, wanting so much, feeling so hard.
The team would not be the team, however, without its support: the cheerleaders, ELIZA BENT (Anneke) and EMILY DAVIS (Eleanor), and KOURTNEY RUTHERFORD (Timber, the mascot). Bent’s stage presence is captivating in the precise way that it should be; you watch her like you watch the head cheerleader at a high school game, with a sort of eerie and maybe even perverse fascination. Her sister/fellow cheerleader/sidekick is not as passionate about cheering as Bent, but she’s dutiful in her moves, her forced smile to the crowd, and her devotion to fitting in. Their dynamic is one so familiar, so Mean Girls, it’s inherently fun to watch. The language, good luck charms and arbitrary rituals they share feel completely real to teenage girldom: Little matching owls that they press together, a lucky “rope-head thing” and a goodbye wave that looks like someone pretending to be a peacock.
The laugh-out-loud moments created by the cheerleaders are topped only Rutherford, playing the mascot, who draws chuckles from the moment she saunters on stage wearing her giant owl head. At one point, she sits alone for a water break, for which she must remove the massive owl head, and delivers a heartfelt monologue in which she insists, vehemently, that being a mascot is “not just for retarded people,” or people “who want to go into sports management when they grow up.”
The non-marching, marching band (BOBBY MCELVER, JON LIJOI, MARY RASMUSSEN and JUSTIN DAYHOFF), perched on the edge of the action, provides hummable and, at times, enchanting accompaniment with a score by CHRIS GIARMO that includes a Lady Gaga medley-mash up which had me bouncing in my seat. The impressive set designed by ANDREEA MINIC, with lights by ZACK TINKLEMAN, convincingly morphs the black box theater into a football field—a magical, sparkly, green “palace” under bright stadium lights. And at the conclusion of this one-act show running just over an hour, you will want to mingle with the cast to find out where the cool kids are going to party, and whose older cousin in college is buying the beer.
Glennis McMurray sat down with FOOTBALL writer and director Tina Satter. Here’s what she had to say:
What prompted you to write a play about a women’s football team?
In grad school I’d written a play that Jess (Barbagallo) and Emily (Davis) were in the reading of. That’s where I first met Emily. It was a very strange play and very latently about these two girls who played field hockey, but there were a fair amount of sports references, and people responded by saying the sports stuff was kind of the best and most interesting part. So I always had that in my head. I could speak to it so well and was able to blow it out in a creative way because it was the most formative thing in my life up until then. I knew I loved working with these girls after FAMILY (another Half Straddle production), and we had this sense of this team thing. I think it was Jess who said we should do a football play with all the people we loved to work with. And that was the genesis of that.
How did Half Straddle start?
I was in grad school with Jess and I didn’t even know she was this amazing performer. But we started the playwriting program at the same time and I applied to short form, which was this residency at what’s now called the Incubator Arts Project. Jess was really intriguing, the way she spoke, and I had this idea that I wanted to take this thing I’d written, which we’d perform four different ways, and have her be the actor that did it each time. The first time was just a monologue. Then I wanted to make it a video, and she said her friend Chris (Giarmo) could help edit. I wanted the third one to be a musical and Chris also did music, so then through other people I met this woman named Julia Sirna-Frest who I didn’t know but who could sing. I asked her to be in it, and she brought her friend Eliza Bent. So with Jess, Eliza, Julia and Chris on music we made this crazy, ten-minute musical that we performed in the basement of St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery. I don’t know for them, but for me it was almost the best the work will probably ever be or feel. The room just went crazy for it. Halfway through the first song, people were on their feet screaming. It was super crazy! We didn’t even know what we were doing, but we immediately knew there was something there with us. Jess, Julia and Eliza just had such different energies as performers. The Incubator Arts Project asked us to make it into a bigger show that summer, so then there was this momentum around it. We were all so excited.
Where did the name Half Straddle come from?
We had to call it something and Half Straddle was a total joke name we had come up with when Jess was straddling something with one leg.
You’re really good at finding people’s core strengths and bringing them out in their character. Is this something you’re consciously doing?
Yeah, I think that goes right back to what I was talking about before. I don’t have real training or anything, but it was so intuitive to work with Jess, Julia and Eliza and find out what they were good at and build that into the piece. And that’s what’s happened. I’ve needed to do that and I’m super interested in that because I want some sort of really natural feeling on stage. And since they’re not actually rooted in naturalism in a typical way, that’s always a sort of interest of mine when I’m seeing performers—trying to give enough space to direct what I want to see, but see what’s coming out of them—their personalities or strengths whether they’re really good singers or have Erin’s (Markey) specific energy.
Who are your influences?
When I first realized I wanted to start doing this, I was reading a lot of RICHARD FOREMAN. The work of the WOOSTER GROUP, MAC WELLMAN—who I didn’t really know, but when I went to school and started reading his plays, he is just really intelligent and sort of contrarian. Someone like SIBYL KEMPSON. I read her play my first year in grad School, and that was really mind blowing. And then always the performers I’m working with. Just who they are.
What do you see for the future of FOOTBALL, Half Straddle and yourself?
I am really excited about this play, and I can’t get too excited about it yet. I just want to get it up at this point. But I am really excited about it—I have this random dream that it could be really big in Europe because they don’t have football and as I said to Martin the first day, they don’t have girls [laughs]. So we’d be bringing something new to Europe. I mean that’s a huge, huge pipe dream, but I don’t know, I just want to open at this point.
For Half Straddle, we keep having this awesome momentum that’s been leading to the next nice show with production support each time that’s a little bit better. We just started to fund raise in a real way in the last show, and much more real for this, but it’s still like, making it sustainable, as anything is, is just really, really hard. So I think getting this show done, seeing where I am and where everyone is, and setting another show that is even more sustainably produced, whether it’s like trying to get more production support from a venue or taking things to festivals. I’m not trying to hurry the next thing out, we had two shows in the past seven months and I learned a lot from the summer one to help make this one. Keeping it going in a sustainable way, whatever that entails, is sort of the goal.
In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL, written and directed by Tina Satter, presented by the Bushwick Starr + Half Straddle, plays Thursdays through Saturdays, Feb 10 – 26, 8 p.m. @ the Bushwick Starr, 207 Starr Street between Wyckoff and Irving (L Train to Jefferson St.). Tickets: $15 at TheBushwickStarr.org.
Visit them on their Web site, HalfStraddle.com.