In The Pony Palace/FOOTBALL
Written and directed by Tina Satter
Beyond the specifics of defensive formations and offensive plays, cheerleading routines and practice exercises, Half Straddle's In The Pony Palace/FOOTBALL at the Bushwick Starr (through February 26) tackles an evocative abstraction of a very specific milieu: high school football. In writer-director Tina Satter's fictional all-girl school—the Lady Gaga-covering marching band's uniforms say Brooklyn, though the feeling is more small town than big city—the Owls are all anyone talks about.
The cheerleading sisters Anneke and Eleanor (Eliza Bent and Emily Davis) discuss their workout and choreography in barely decipherable code in the opening scene, sitting in the stands overlooking a fragment of the titular football field at the 30-yard line. The team arrives for practice, along with their owl mascot Timber (Courtney Rutherford in a superb mask by Kim Mullis), who also plays tight end. It's never made clear whether this is actually an all-girls school with a football team, or a coed high school portrayed by an entirely female cast, and glimmers of romance between cheerleaders and players only confound that distinction further.
There's plenty more quirk to puzzle over—the glam rock makeup, the canny banter between Coach Betts (Glennis McMurray) and her assistant Maureen (Moe Angelos), the very deliberately tweaked language all the characters speak—but what Satter and the excellent ensemble get at is something more evocative and ephemeral, that feeling of a tiny group living and breathing, winning and losing in unison. A few lucky audience members are handed glitter-adorned foam fingers before the show starts, and there are moments of triumph when they're put to good use.
The Owls' first game against the Leopards is a glorious victory, with the mild-mannered quarterback Dara (Jee Barbagallo) keeping both her running back Sasha (Nikki Calonge) and newly arrived cocky wide receiver Trace (Erin Markey) happy in hilarious pantomimed plays, many done in slow-motion. Their celebratory party, despite being supplied only with Coke bottles, leaves the team and its cheerleaders badly hungover for their second game, which they lose after a heroic drive that falls short in the closing seconds. It's the stuff of epic sports movies and closely guarded childhood memories, and Pony Palace balances those contrasting scales nimbly.
The outsized and peculiar emotions of both high school and sports are brought to bear on this stylized field, twisted into hilariously nonsensical yet somehow appropriate lines like, "It's hard to make your brain like a sky and then add in hurricanes." Such abstract dialog and off-kilter humor never diminishes the always-accessible feelings provoked by success and defeat on the field. The Owls' loss is Half Straddle's victory, but both will be back next season.
(photo credit: Hunter Canning)