Coming up roses
Remember the days when big-hearted and brainy prostitutes ruled town, usurping crooked politicians when things got a little too corrupt? Whether or not such days truly existed—it’s sort of romantic to think they did—they are given full account in Red Rose Musical Productions’ Cathouse Afternoon.
In the style of mystery dinner theater, copies of the Territorial Gazette (dated July 18, 1879) were passed out as my sister, Amber, and I entered the downstairs dining area of the Mandarin Garden Chinese Restaurant in Virginia City. Upon finding seats, we were accosted by Judge Knott (Ed Murkovich) as he handed out his business card and pandered for votes in the upcoming election. His card read, “Judge Knott for Governor: Honest when necessary. Integrity when required. Justice on demand.” And even though the play took place in a time that was pre-women’s suffrage, the Judge was not above promising my sister and me a ballot if we stopped by the voting booth at a specified time. The Judge, with eyes that continued to survey the room as he beseeched, struck us as slimy right off, so we didn’t make any promises
When we weren’t being chatted up by Hardrock (Bob Elston), the town drunk, or Esmeralda (Sheree Rose), the parlor house madame (she asked that it not be called a whorehouse), we read our copies of the Territorial, which reported on a fire that had taken place at the local church the night before. The mystery of the evening: Who started the fire?
Will Rose who fronted the C Street Boys band—all live music—and who played the character Dutch, Esmeralda’s real-love-not-just-sex interest, wrote all the music for Cathouse Afternoon. His real-life wife, Sheree, directed the piece, her directorial debut, although you would never know it.
The songs were simple but catchy, and they ranged from heartbreaking to hilarious. The doctor who brought Esmeralda her opium, completely legal at the time, sang: “I’ve got no medicine to cure you … There ain’t no medicine for what ails a whore.” Two of Esmeralda’s girls (actresses Lisa Light and Francine Borlee) sang about how they landed in the sad profession of selling their bodies for sex, and a rambunctious third, Angel (Kristi Murkovich) sang: “I ain’t got no story about how I’ve been abused … You’re crying there in your beer, feeling down on your luck … I’ll tell you girls quite honestly, I just love to f—” before the other girls jumped from behind her and covered her mouth.
While the humor was often bawdy, it never crossed the line to where parents wouldn’t want to take their children to the show. In fact, kids would probably have fun with the dancing and singing and the sweet and sour chicken, among other things served for dinner.
Most of the actors seemed comfortable in their roles, which is often difficult with interactive dinner theatre where there is lots of improvisation. Nobody’s voices were overly impressive, which was not a fault but rather added to the casual feeling of the play. The cast seemed very tight-knit; the performance could have passed for a well-crafted family act.
Cathouse Afternoon is great Virginia City theater with talented Virginia City performers who could rival any actor in the greater Reno area. Hopefully, we will see many more productions by the overly inconspicuous Red Rose Productions in the years to come.