W orld premiere of ‘Rattlesnake Kate’ opens after a long pandemic delay

This one was a long time coming. First workshopped during 2019’s Colorado New Play Summit, Rattlesnake Kate may be the most anticipated show of the 2022 theatre season. Part “campfire tale,” part biography and driven entirely by music, Rattlesnake Kate was originally conceived by Neyla Pekarek, who wrote the music and lyrics.

As the title suggests, it’s about a woman who has a run-in with some snakes near her home. It’s a true Colorado story, the year is 1925 and Katherine McHale Slaughterback is out back of her house with her young son Ernie (Esteban Suero) when 140 or so migrating rattlesnakes surrounded them. Kate begins shooting and, when the ammo runs out, she finds a “No Hunting” sign nearby and whacks the rest of them to death.

When the adrenaline burns off, Kate realizes she may just have something here; something that might make her hardscrabble life on an unproductive ranch in Hudson, CO a bit more bearable. With a true American huckster’s feel for a money-maker, she takes the snake story and rides it hard. She makes a dress of the skins, and later some shoes. She gets a reporter to write about her, and a photo of her with a crap-ton of snake hides finds its way into papers around the world. She sells venom to a lab.

But it only gets her so far. Most of the rest of her life is punctuated by relationships with a series of shitty husbands (six altogether, married and divorced) and other unsavory male characters destined, it seemed, to make her tough life even tougher. She also seems to carry her violence-against-snakes forward, causing her to spend more than a few nights in the pokey for drunk & disorderly.

I had the opportunity to see an earlier version of this during the Denver Center Theatre Company’s annual New Play Summit in 2019. Pekarek, a cellist, vocalist and songwriter who’d recently left the Colorado folk-rock group The Lumineers, had come across the story and saw the promise in a strong female character with some serious flaws.

Since then, a number of new songs have been added and playwright Karen Hartman made significant changes to the book. I remember thinking when I first saw it that it had one major challenge to overcome: the whole rattlesnake thing is a one-off, and it comes pretty early in Kate’s life. Was there enough there to create a cohesive story with a narrative arc solid enough to base a musical on?

Neyla Pekarek as Brownie | Photo: Andrew Kelly Photography

Wow factor

This is a truly beautiful production that announces its creativity the moment you walk into the newly renovated Wolf Theatre at the Denver Center. The set design by Klara Zieglerova is pretty stunning: an enormous quantity of barn wood arranged in a jumble of angles suggesting not just the barren plain and the Front Range in the distance but the jagged features of Kate’s life. The set has multiple levels, stairs and an array of entry and exit points as well as a number of cleverly placed cubbyholes to stow props.

Director Chris Coleman uses all of it with an inspired, fluid approach that has the actors flowing on and off the set with surprising stealth. Combined with the under-stage lifts easily popping up furniture as needed, the entire effect is of one, big organic community all there to tell the story.

3 Kates

Rattlesnake Kate has a few other tricks up its sleeve. Kate is played by three actors, each representing a different time of her life but all still appearing on stage throughout as part of the ensemble. (Diverse casting has them played by brown, white and Black actors). The first we meet is “Katie” (Leana Rae Concepcion), who does a nice job establishing the character as a strong-willed, pants-wearing spitfire. She tells her father to shove it, pronounces herself “a new kind of woman” and leaves her home in Longmont to make her way a few miles east.

Middle Kate is played by a wonderful Alyse Alan Louis, who embraces the role with a wild strawberry mane of hair and a fighting spirit. She carries much of the main story and gets to do the snake fight bit. When she staggers into their cabin to tell her dirtbag hubby Jack Slaughterback (Steven Grant Douglas) all about it, it’s the high point of her life, as we’ll soon learn.

The last chapter of her life features Andrea Frierson, who embodies both Kate’s beaten-down spirit but remaining sparks as she looks back on a life that was, in many ways, that of a one-hit wonder who never regained her glory days. Even in what might’ve been her wiser days, Kate sticks to bad decision-making and turns down an offer from Ernie to get the hell off her crappy ranch and live out her days in a nicer part of the world.

Alyse Alan Louis plays Kate’s middle years | Photo: Andrew Kelly Photography

Constant companion

If you polled people coming out of the theatre about their favorite character, I’d wager the honor would go to Brownie. An inspired piece of casting as ever there was, Kate’s horse is played by Pekarek herself. In baggie clothes (no horse costume, thank god) and toting her cello wherever she goes, she does speak but often says what she needs to say with a few strokes of her bow. With her wry and unassuming smile and sweet presence, Pekarek shows off her impressive vocal range throughout the show and really soars for Brownie’s final scene. Other than Ernie, Brownie is the only true constant in Kate’s life, and it’s paced out well so that she’s in most of the show.

Rattlesnake Kate is comprised of a great many scenes and musical numbers, often heralded by a cast member announcing the year. Told in chronological fashion, the musical has the feel of a biography and, as such, gives up some ground in how the story might’ve been told in a less-linear fashion. But it does leave plenty of room for Pekarek’s clever, catchy songs, which fit the action well. I counted 37 musical numbers in all, so if you like her stuff, this one’s for you.

So, about that question of whether there’s enough meat on this story’s bones, I’d say it’s a tossup. There’s no doubt that the snake-fight storyline, however long delayed, is tough to top. That results in the addition of some less-interesting scenes — like one about a jerk of a sugar-beet farmer (Matthew Bryan Feld) and his put-upon workers. There’s also a series of ultimately unsatisfying scenes with a character named Buckskin Bill (Michael Genet), at first a pen pal for Kate and later another potential spouse who ultimately leaves her hanging.

Despite the truly courageous snake massacre, Rattlesnake Kate is ultimately about an everywoman making her way through a world in hopes that some way, somehow, tomorrow will be a better day. Her indefatigable spirit is an inspiration as much as her lack of spine in the husband department is a constant disappointment. (True or not, that aspect of the story annoyed my wife enough to dampen her enthusiasm for the whole thing.)

Kate is neither a hero nor a villain. And despite the fact that she doesn’t scratch much out of the ground at her ranch, her persistence over many decades serves as an inspiration for those who value hard work. The use of three actors helps propel that sense of her tale being universal, and while I asked myself if it diluted my affinity for the character, Coleman’s smooth transitions between them helped it add up for me.

It’s not often that we have a Colorado native like Pekarek serve up a big Colorado musical like Rattlesnake Kate, and it’s an occasion to be celebrated. Somehow, the creation of Kate’s hard-luck story straddling the pandemic is fitting — as if Kate herself was behind it all, cussin’ and waving her snakeskins until the damn thing was finished.