The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill, on the Eve of Killing his Wife

Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

13/10/2010 - 23/10/2010

Pacific Crystal Palace, Masonic Park, Tauranga

28/10/2011 - 28/10/2011

Tauranga Arts Festival 2011

Production Details

Can a legend die? Or worse, slowly fade away into irrelevance?  A musical postcard from the inner landscape of the Old West, The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill mourns the obsolescence of heroes, showing them transfixed as relics in the mythic junkyard of American popular culture.
Pecos Bill was written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sam Shepard (“the most original humourous poet in the American theatre,” according to the New Yorker), and Catherine Stone in collaboration with music / theatre co-op The Overtones, and has been rarely performed since it’s debut in 1976 at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco.  The New York Times hailed its “mythical whimsy” while the New Yorker found it “haunting, funny, enriching.”  Here Shepard mingles past, present and future into a pastiche of legend and actuality.
Featuring the eponymous cowboy comic-book icon legendary for creating Texas, wrangling tornados and digging the Rio Grande – not to mention his mighty stimulatin’ catfish-riding bride – this new production of Pecos Bill boasts evocative new musical arrangements and improvisations, and the weathered look of medicine shows and ghost towns.
The play takes place after Pecos Bill shoots his brand new bride Sluefoot Sue after she takes an ill-fated ride on his bucking bronco Widowmaker.  The couple perform a spirited and tragic series of songs (Sue’s dead, “but sings anyway”) that ask “Why is we both dyin’ on this land”?  Shepard has them confront their own status as caricature – as Disney-esque cliches “rotten in the memory of man”.  Where cowboys were once revered in the public imagination, when justice was served with a six shooter, when the land was tamed by the hand of man, Pecos Bill is now himself bewildered by a modern world full of menace, television and shopping.   
However, Pecos Bill is most of all an elegy to an authenticity that never was.  The wild west, with all of its return-to-the-land romanticism, still influences popular culture today – especially at a time of chicken coops in Grey Lynn.  But that Old West authenticity was itself a kind of ‘fakelore’.  Pecos Bill’s adventures weren’t told around campfires by 19th century pioneers – in fact they were first dreamt-up for a New York magazine by one Edward O’Reilly in the early 20th century. 
Pecos Bill’s Auckland run at the Basement Theatre is the brainchild of The Dove Hunters, a cooperative of actors and musicians.  Sluefoot Sue is played by Colleen Davis (known in NZ from the Almost a Bird Theatre Collective, the Dust Palace, Auckland Theatre Company productions of Oliver and Cabaret, and an accomplished jazz and blues singer).  Bill is played by Barnie Duncan, who recently appeared in Dog Sees God at the Basement Theatre and is the singer with Auckland band the Hot Grits.  The mise-en-scene is by Sophie Roberts (artistic co-director of the Almost a Bird Theatre Collective, director ofDog Sees GodBlinkers, and Mr Marmalade).  The band includes contemporary composer Hermione Johnson, jazz drummer and improviser Chris O’Connor (SJD, Don McGlashan), blues singer and guitarist Tom Rodwell (Storehouse) and avant-guitarist extraordinaire Phill Dryson (Benka Boradovsky Bordello Band, Meatbix). 
Basement Theatre, 
Lower Grey’s Avenue, Auckland Central
October 13 – 16
Doors 9.30pm
Standard Tickets $20 
Concession Tickets $15
Advance tickets from 

Tauranga Arts Festival 2011 

Beautifully realised musical evocation of grief

Review by Vanessa Byrnes 30th Oct 2011

The best stories are told around campfires. And the bigger the fire, the better the story. Pecos Bill has one large fire, but is not so much a story as a lament in the true sense of the word. That is, a long audible expression of grief; a mourning.

The excellently well-blended four piece band (The Storehouse) warming up preshow ambience gives some idea what lies ahead. Texan cowboy blues juxtapose with Colleen Davis as Bill’s bride (Sluefoot Sue), lying dead in her wedding dress. She is enshrined on the hay-bale altar as Bill (Peter Daube) gazes into the fire that only inflames his pain.

Pecos Bill, the Texan giant who “dug out the Rio Grande with his bare hands – just to get a drink of water” is depicted as a man, rather than the legend that Disney would have us believe. This is no caricatured Aladdin or cartooned Superman; here, the epitome of Western Cowboy wilderness-taming machismo myth is depicted as a broken man, lonely for the woman he lost and the connection he still so wants.

Peter Daube really is the total package as Bill; he sings, moves, feels and plays the banjo with snarling vulnerability. With little movement Daube infuses Bill with a kind of Gabriel Garcia Marquez-like magical realism.

There is sensuality in death; Colleen Davis’s velveteen vocals rip through the pain and find a strong emotional core for the piece. She is wonderfully focused and plays the dead/entranced Sue with true connection. Davis is super wonderful to listen to and watch in a part that wouldn’t read as much on paper.

This is early Sam Shepard playing with the emotional texture of phrases and quirks of character. It’s a precursor to his later work like True West involving more narrative and dialogue as it dances with the idea of what makes a man, rather than a myth. ‘To be born as a legend and die as a man’ is the hook, but without a strong central narrative it’s a hard ask to sustain Bill’s internal conflict for 80 minutes.

The performance extrapolates pain, grief, angst with beautiful musical and vocal textures. Bill and Sue sing, ‘Why is we still dyin’ on this land?’ and the musicians, kind of Bill’s external Chorus, don’t seek to answer that question. They hold his grief with acoustic Texan Blues, Native American Indian influences, a slide guitar, rattle, prayer bowl and highly inventive percussion. I must mention the excellent work of Chris O’Connor, Phil Drysen and Tom Rodwell in the band.   

At times the words were very hard to hear in the Crystal Palace but this is an infused and beautifully realised musical and vocal experience that is not so much a story as a musical evocation of grief. Worth seeing.  


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Bold, colourful, inspiring

Review by Caoilinn Hughes 15th Oct 2010

Despite Shepard’s ongoing celebrity for plays like Buried Child and True West, The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife has rarely been performed since its debut in 1976 at San Francisco’s Bay Area Playwrights’ Festival. Perhaps because of the play’s conceptual complexity; perhaps because of its narrative ennui, few companies have taken on the challenge of giving this postmodern pastiche of an American iconreal meaning.

The Dove Hunters bring something that is apparently dead – both the play and its cowboy hero – to roaring life in Auckland’s Basement Theatre; pulling the cobwebs off an old cultural hero and wearing them as a headpiece. Bold, colourful, inspiring, The Dove Hunters’ production of this ‘Western Operetta’ is a feast of musical talent and aesthetic flair.

The play may not have gained the long-life Shepard’s other plays have enjoyed because its key message, however poignant, which is communicated in the first few sentences of the play becomes the refrain for the remaining hour, in all its key signatures. That message is that the Western cowboy hero is forgotten in the memory of America; is “rottin’ in the memories of man.” “Why is we dyin’ on this land?”

The iconic hero – Pecos Bill – was the ‘King of the Plains’ who created Texas; inventing the centipede, taming the wild hurricane, branding the mountains, digging the mighty Rio Grande – and all by hand. Pecos, who is played with beautiful understatement by Barnie Duncan, laments the death of his wife Slue-Foot Sue, by his own hand. In a symbolic twist of fate, Sue takes a ride on Pecos’ horse – Widow Maker – on the eve of their wedding, and is buckarooed into space by the horse. She bounces up and down from the earth to the moon for three days until Pecos finally puts her out of her misery with the western hero’s on-the-nose shot. 

Ironically, even in his own play, Pecos is no longer the star – he cannot retain the limelight over Slue-Foot Sue, whose wedding dress-clad ghost haunts the stage. Colleen Davis’ committed performance of Sue is mesmerising. Her voice is breath-taking; adding a pathos to the play which it otherwise might not achieve. Her character represents much of the avant-gardism of the play; removing any semblance of realism and embodying the symbolist elements of the play through an expressionistic dance under the moon; getting tangled up – strangled perhaps – in fairy light stars.

Davis’ musical excellence is complemented on stage by a hugely talented group of musicians: Tom Rodwell on Lead Guitar (who was the Musical Director behind the piece), Phil Dryson on Electric Guitar – and saw, incidentally – and not-to-be-missed Chris O’Connor on percussion.

Leaving the theatre, I heard someone say: “The Percussion! Extraordinary!” And that’s exactly what it was – extraordinarily creative, extraordinarily exciting. At one moment reminiscent of Raymond Deane’s Seachanges and at another The Buena Vista Social Club; the musical innovation would have Sam Shepard and his original musical composer Catherine Stone over the moon, and back again.

If the cowboys are over and done with, the musicians are the new heroes, and perhaps that’s not such a bad thing! An inspiring way to spend an hour, tonight or tomoww: The Basement, 9.30pm. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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