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Sage advice 

Flaming Guns blasts Western cliches at Horizon theatre

It's entirely possible that Pulitzer nominee Jane Martin does not exist.

The writer of such plays as Jack and Jill, Keely and Du and Horizon Theater's current comedy Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage is mysteriously reclusive and enigmatic. She's suspected of being the nom de plume of Jon Jory, former artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where 10 of her plays have premiered at the Humana Festival for New American Plays.

Sage suggests that another possible author may be Sam Shepard, as the play can resemble one of Shepard's broad-shouldered, grandly gesturing meditations on the American West. True, Sage is an over-the-top farce, but were it played completely straight-faced with Shepard's name on it, I doubt anyone would be the wiser. Horizon's production of Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage finds laughs as big as all outdoors, even though it's a rather weird work that doesn't always meet its more serious aspirations.

"The rodeo's gone to hell in a hand basket," drawls Big Eight (Mary Lynn Owen) at the outset. She's a freelance healer of rodeo riders who's taken up with young buckaroo Rob Bob (Eamon Glennon). One rainy night their cozy domesticity is disrupted by the arrival of Shedevil, a pierced, spiky-haired punk prone to punctuate her sentences with comic book sound effects. She makes two big claims: She got pregnant by Big Eight's son (the never-seen but memorably named Lucifer Lee), and that she's being pursued by a bloodthirsty Russian biker (Stephen David Calhoun), who's as hard to kill as Rasputin.

Big Eight very reluctantly gives sanctuary to Shedevil, who starts ransacking the older woman's home the first chance she gets. Rob Bob, wearing nothing but boots, a gun belt and his jock strap, gets the drop on her, and the bickering young people quickly fall into each other's arms and onto the Cheerio-strewn kitchen table. When Glennon stands up, the Cheerios cling to his backside -- and you can't deny it, it's very, very funny.

Sage aims at more than spoofing cowboy conventions, a la Blazing Saddles. Jane Martin, whoever s/he is, also wants to lasso and hog-tie the attitudes and assumptions that support the Western archetypes for machismo, violence and gender roles. Big Eight's sister Shirl (Deb Polston) is a honky-tonk sweetheart who works in a slaughterhouse and constantly drops in with raw, dripping cuts of ribs, a detail that foreshadows some grisly slapstick to come. Anthony Rodriguez's amusingly hapless Deputy Baxter has a speech so full of improbably chest-thumping lines ("I eat Texas for breakfast!") that it hits the play's thematic bull's-eye.

Still, it's a little disappointing that so much of Act Two becomes just another comedy about hiding and disposing of a dead body, with familiar shtick of characters trying to be casual and keep a bloody corpse from tumbling out of a closet. Sage certainly offers some good sight gags, as when a character who's been repeatedly shot gets up for a drink, and water sieves out his chest a la a Looney Tunes cartoon.

The playwright comes up with some vividly raunchy lines, as when Big Eight describes someone struck by lightning: "They didn't find nothing but his contact lenses and his foreskin." But the dialogue also often proves arch and artificial, too self-conscious of its Wild West inspiration. Rob Bob's obsession with cowboy movies seems more suitable to an Internet geek than an actual bronco-buster. At times, the play's dialogue seems reminiscent of nothing so much as that "Far Side" cartoon where the buzzard's wearing the 10-gallon hat and saying "Look, I'm a cowboy! Howdy, howdy, howdy!"

But director Heidi Cline and the cast all comfortably fill out their oversized roles. Owen's all spit and gristle as Big Eight, stalking the stage with a saddle-sore gait. Glennon has a hilariously earnest, deadpan demeanor as the none-too-bright Rob Bob, while Hofer puts a comically hostile edge on Shedevil's every action. The play's content may travel through barren territory, but Horizon's production of Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage makes up for it with theatrical equivalent of trick riding and rodeo clowning.

Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage plays through Nov. 25 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. at Euclid Avenue, with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 8:30 p.m. Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $16-25. 404-584-7450.

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