Arts & CultureTheater

Review: “Steelhand Joe” delivers puns, banjos and everything in between

If you’re looking for entertainment, the Pocket Playhouse’s production of “Steelhand Joe” isn’t likely to disappoint. The play, written and directed by University of Oregon student Sam Cain, relays the shenanigans of a headstrong bartender, a slightly underwhelming sheriff and an unfortunate cowboy born with guns for hands. It sounds a bit bizarre, but don’t worry: “Steelhand Joe” doesn’t take itself too seriously. From beginning to end, the play delivers twists, turns and a healthy dose of wordplay: the perfect ingredients for a lighthearted and enjoyable comedy.

Steelhand Joe’s storyline wasn’t extraordinary, but that wasn’t the point. Cain’s excellent writing and character development took center stage. When he wasn’t parodying cliché Western characters, Cain was reinventing them, with humorous and endearing results. Both the title character and his romantic counterpart, sassy bartender Peggy, were developed with care by writer and actor. Throughout the play, their dialogue combined humor and genuine emotion that never felt forced, and their adorably awkward romance was easy to root for.

The fast-paced dialogue was laden with puns, gags and anachronisms. Though occasional lapses in diction made a few punchlines hard to catch, by the end of the play, it felt as though the audience shared an inside joke or two with the characters (Boo!) The cast delivered their lines with energy, commitment and delightfully campy accents. Actor Karsten Topelmann as Jack, the leader of a harmless band of rowdy graffiti artists, was especially hilarious. His physicality brought the clever dialogue to life.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of “Steelhand Joe,” however, was the element of surprise. Jack’s fellow graffiti gang members spoke in sign language (though one was only partially deaf), resulting in hilarious miscommunications. The play was narrated by “Radical Steve and his Band,” an actual, banjo-playing crew of folk musicians, some wearing fake mustaches. Between each scene, the band sang back-up, as Radical Steve (played by Dylan Bunten) comically rehashed the plot in twangy song.

“Steelhand Joe” pokes fun at the clichés we know and love and occasionally pushes the boundaries of expectations. It doesn’t dig much deeper than that, however, and that’s okay. Though this play doesn’t ask the big questions about life or try to shape the way its audience sees the world, it is well-written, well-directed and just plain fun. Running just over an hour, it’s the perfect length for a study break or weekend date and the laughs and heart are well worth the short trip to Villard Hall.

Story by Rachel Benner.

“Steelhand Joe” gives its final performance Saturday night at 5 p.m. at the Pocket Playhouse in Villard Hall. Admission is free for students, though a $1 donation is encouraged. For more information, visit the Pocket Playhouse Facebook page.

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Emerson Malone

Emerson Malone

Podcast producer with The Daily Emerald and student research fellow with the UO-UNESCO Crossings Institute.