So you think you want to meet Calamity Jane, do you? Well, partner, you can, because just before All Hallows Eve she arose from the cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota, where she was buried next to one of her husbands, Wild Bill Hickok, and brought her famous stage show to Boulder, Colorado.
I want to warn you beforehand that any romantic notions you have about the Wild West may be unceremoniously dispelled by this wildcat posing as a cowpoke, because Stephen Wangh and Suzanne Baxtresser's script fully exposes Martha Jane Canary, better know as Calamity Jane (Ethelyn Friend), warts and all.
The story is told by Calamity, with some counterpoint from the Musician, Michael Frayne, who's also the emcee and straight man. It's a free associative tale, segueing with whatever association passes through Calamity's pickled brain at the time. The wild stories are punctuated with popular traditional ballads, dance hall rags, Native American chants, and tuneful atmospherics, and three original pieces by Baxtresser.
Friend, whose singing is as captivating as her acting, moves effortlessly from gravelly voiced barroom laments to sweet soprano melodies, with an impressive rap on backbreaking, muscle-shaking work thrown in, all to the fine picking, plunking, and beats provided by Frayne, who can sing a lick as well. Friend also does a hilarious mocking imitation of Doris Day, who played her in the mostly fictional Warner Brothers 1953 classic.
But this is Calamity's show and Friend completely embraces all of her idiosyncratic aspects-braggart, raconteur, fighter, caretaker, friend, and showman-and leaves us in awe. When Calamity starts grousing about journalists, it's time to hide under the table, which by the way held some tasty fixin's from The Rock N Soul Café's reasonably priced menu. Oh, and don't mention Annie Oakley to Calamity: she hates getting confused with such a pantywaist!
Calamity led a tough life, as did most folks on the frontier, but hers was especially so, her parents dying when she was 13, leaving her to raise her two younger sisters. Manual labor for subsistence as her only prospect, she landed in Deadwood at age 16.
She learned to shoot and ride with the best of them, often posing as a man to get work, when she wasn't working as a prostitute, or married and relatively confined. She road out with Custer, worked with Buffalo Bill, and went through 13 husbands, all of whom died badly, they say. In fact, what "they say" is about all we have to go on, since Calamity would make up anything to grab her listeners, the anecdotes becoming part of the legend.
Friend's Calamity shows us is directed by Katsura Kan, an internationally known Butoh artist. Butoh is a dance movement that began after World War II in Japan. It has roots in ancient Japanese culture, but leverages elements of pre-war German expressionism into an avant-garde practice.
Ken Green, who conceived and designed the overall project, is co-producing the performance with Naropa MFA Director Wendell Beavers. Green was a member of the original board of directors that founded Naropa in the 1970s and was a senior student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa asked Green to adapt the text for film and theater, so it would be accessible to the general public. Douglas Penick, a Boulder-based writer, librettist, and scholar, wrote the text adaptation.
Performances of Luminous Emptiness will be held on Friday through Sunday, Oct. 16-18, in the Performing Arts Center at the Naropa University, 2130 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, Colo. 80302. For reservations and ticketing, contact (303) 245-4798 or online.