Tom Robbins’ novel “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” was made into a movie by Gus Van Sant in the early ’90s. It bombed. Now, Jennifer Sue Johnson has adapted the novel into a play for Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theater, and, while the results are more encouraging this time around, one can’t escape the nagging feeling this may be one of those books best left between two covers.
“Cowgirls” is essentially a picaresque story revolving around Sissy Hankshaw (Kate Czajkowski), a restless spirit born with unusually large thumbs. Over the course of her adventure, Sissy’s thumbs serve as a mode of transportation (via hitchhiking), an object of sexual desire and even a weapon; they are her curse and her salvation. They take her on an odyssey of self-discovery that leads to the Rubber Rose Ranch, where she hooks up with a bevy of lesbian cowgirls and a sex-mad hermit-guru named “The Chink” (Wesley Rice).
Written in 1976, “Cowgirls” became a countercultural touchstone of sorts — embracing, as it did, free and homosexual love, drug use and animal rights. But it wasn’t a political manifesto so much as a poetic cri de coeur, a writer’s expression of the soul’s desire to exist outside the bounds of convention.
Director Russ Banham stages the drama in Book-It Rep’s customary page-to-stage style, in which the characters speak not only the dialogue, but many of the narrative passages as well. This honors Robbins’ language, and the book’s many episodes are cleverly linked by pop tunes supplied onstage by cowgirl-singer Jo Miller and fiddler Barbara Lamb.
Yet, for all of the creativity in the staging and music, Book-It’s “Cowgirls” feels disappointingly earthbound.
Robbins, at his best, is like a musician himself — beguiling you with his voice, plucking the strings of your imagination. This production — so intimate you can practically see the tape connecting Sissy’s prosthetic digits to her hands — brings his flights of fancy too close to the ground.
Part of the difficulty is the staging of sex scenes, of which there are many. Book-It performs in the 192-seat Center House Theater, where everything is literally in your face — notably the crotches of the cowgirls, who at one point line up pants-free facing the audience.
Particularly awkward is a tryst between Sissy and the exuberant Bonanza Jellybean (Hilary Pickles), which is simultaneously too graphic and too chaste: The women are buck naked, but they don’t embrace or fondle like true lovers, perhaps to avoid the appearance of out-and-out pornography.
Not just the sex scenes are clunky. As one of Seattle’s brave small-to-midsize theaters, Book-It tends to fill out its casts with less-experienced actors, some of whom are clearly out of their depth here.
None of the leads, however, fall into this category. Czajkowski is winning as the adventurous, sensitive Sissy; Rice is bracing and funny as the Chink; and Marissa Price is powerfully alluring as the dark cowgirl Delores Del Ruby. The perky, pistol-packing Pickles seemingly was born to play tough-and-tender Bonanza Jellybean; when she “gets the blues” at the end, it’s heartbreaking.
Although there are moments in this play that ring that true, it can’t equal the book’s page-after-page originality and authenticity.