If you’re familiar with the concept of a bottle episode of a TV show, you might also know how notoriously difficult they can be for writers. Bottle episodes keep a few characters restricted in one space the whole time, and therefore can’t rely on a change of scenery or the introduction of new people to liven up the action. Tres Bandidos by the Agency Theater Collective at Heartland Studio Theatre is a sort of nouveau-Western bottle episode of a three-man play by Cody Lucas featuring a bank robbery that went wrong before it ever really got going. Tres Bandidos’ sensibilities are almost entirely wrapped up in the romanticism of the classic spaghetti westerns, but its themes reach beyond good, bad and ugly to bring today’s issues to light in a way even us city slickers can understand.
We don’t know much as the lights go up and we find ourselves in a dingy Texas motel. Thunder and lightning crash outside the window and two panting men wander in, shiny silver revolvers in hand, but the intrigue is immediately there. Part of this owes to the very fine work done by Ellie Humphreys on lighting and Chas Mathieu on set design. You’d be forgiven if you thought that recreating a dingy motel room was easy, but to truly get the grime and loneliness is another thing entirely, and they’ve managed to capture it well.
As we’re introduced to David (Joe Lino) and Luke (Cody Lucas) we learn that the pair is on their way to rob a bank. Luke is the new guy, brought on to drive the getaway car, and David is the second-in-command who doesn’t take kindly to Luke’s presence. Both actors do a fine job of working the chemistry of extreme dislike, and their initial interactions reveal that the bank job is off to a terrible start, with the getaway car stalled in the parking lot of their motel after having been pushed through the mud for a long while, leaving the men angry and exhausted with few options.
The two await the arrival of Shep (Guy Wicke), the leader of the group, who’s been long-time friends with David and has more recently struck up a friendship with the greenhorn of the group, Luke, who’s as uncertain, eager and unstable as they come. Tough though Lino’s David is, he’s nevertheless likeable, even as he alternates spending his time on harassing Luke and nervously awaiting Shep’s arrival.
When Shep finally does arrive, he’s the calm center of the storm, both soothing David and ensuring Luke that his standing is sound. They’ll have to wait until late night when the motel operator’s turned his eye off the parking lot and guests have bedded down to steal a battery from another car if they hope to move on with their plans. More of each character’s story is revealed as the three get dried off and take turns whiling away the time in conversation.
There’s plenty of opportunity for bad pacing to make a play like this unbearable, but we’re fed just enough intriguing information in each interaction to make us want to know more. All three characters are likeable and sympathetic in their way, and you can relate to the anxious eagerness of someone like Luke who wants to do the one job and be out as much as you can the anxiety-tinged anger of Lino’s David, who just wants to get it over with and escape the demons of his past. Shep, meanwhile, brings an almost inappropriate sense of gregariousness to the team of three initially, the cooler head in a heated situation.
Things aren’t all as they seem though, and while the play could’ve been set in virtually any decade from the ‘70s on by virtue of the first half hour, after a while, the stories the men tell reveal the troubles of our modern society, from the problem of inaccessible healthcare to addiction, domestic abuse, police violence and more. Each of the men has a tragic tale to tell, and as their personal narratives unfold a common thread regarding the relationship between men and their fathers is revealed, as well as a bit of an insight to the damage toxic masculinity can do to boys as they grow into men. There’s even a bit of exploration of racial tensions amongst the men, with a particularly gutting scene punctuated by a question of overlooked inequality and profiling of young Latinos that David brings into the conversation.
Even as the scenery stays static and the storm rages outside, the ebb and flow of the play remains unhampered, and the action builds, improbably, throughout the play. Its only moment of failure is in what seems like unnecessary genre navel-gazing, in which Lucas as playwright indulges his fondness for Westerns. The characters all choose a Western that will represent them, each offering different opinions about each other’s choices that are amusing, but feel unnecessary. They take the viewer out of the sort of soapy Western feel so easily caught from the surroundings and action of the earlier parts of the play.
Eventually, things start to come to a head, as the hour grows late, tempers flare and some interesting discoveries are made, and by this point, Lucas has succeeded in getting us on the edges of their seats. Will the bank heist happen? Who makes it out and who doesn’t? Who’s hiding something (the answer: everyone, from the very get-go, it seems) and who makes it out of this messy affair. We’ll leave the answers to those questions for you to find out, as with the great performances of Wicke, Lino and Lucas, great set design and lighting, and a solid story by Lucas, we can definitely recommend checking this one out.
The Agency Theater Collective presents the world premiere of Tres Bandidos through September 15 at Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood. You can purchase tickets, which are pay-what-you-can, here. NOTE: The play uses realistic-sounding gunfire.
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