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This world premiere is ambitious, kaleidoscopic, darkly funny, challenging, and diffuse. Fraught with Old West imagery, it boasts a Fort Apache set by Anthony Gutowski, Native American animal masks by Angela Agnew, a medicine wheel, and an ever-present character named Coyote (Betty Matthews). The work seems to spring from the same fertile ground as Beth Henley's Abundance, seen at South Coast Repertory in 1989. Conceived and directed by Sledgehammer artistic director Kirsten Brandt, the ensemble creation is equal parts feminist/political diatribe, folkloric tall tale, and raucous send-up of the rootin' tootin' Wild West and the larger-than-life types that promoted and settled it. The work's stated purpose is to discover what it is to be an American.

One of Brandt's funniest and most successful scenes is set in the U.S. Senate, where pompous politicians far removed from the problems in God's Country ponder and pontificate on them. The politicians are Mr. Bunkerhunt (Walter Murray), junior Senator Calvin Hawkins (a virile, compelling performance by Michael Severance), Mr. Weyerhauser (Jessa Watson), and Mr. Speaker (Tim West). The brilliantly calibrated scene contains jarringly funny topical references and is peppered with repetition of a phrase from poet e e cummings: "by gosh, by golly, by gum, by gee, by jingo."

Except for Severance, whose character's letters from the Wild West to Washington help somewhat to define the action, most of the aforementioned actors perform multiple roles. One of West's characters is the patriarchal Olaf Swenson, an immigrant farmer whose longing for a son has sent several wives to early graves. Determined not to be impregnated, Swenson's appetizing yet emotionally frayed new wife (Watson) is charged with caring for numerous female Swenson progeny, represented by an unending string of unclad rag dolls. Later, West portrays the Lawless Brothers, fabled gunslingers whose reputation outstrips their aim. This portion of the play ends uproariously with a Wild West shooting gallery where thespians are shot for bad acting. Other company members, none of whom deserve bullets, are Melissa Supera as Etta Seller, wife of a land scammer played by Murray, and Amber Wolfe who portrays Hawkins' girlfriend, an herbalist who knows how to stop those babies from coming.

Visually, the production is stunningly beautiful, thanks to Gutowski's scenic design, Mary Larson's evocative, cleavage-enhancing costumes, and Mike Durst's moody lighting scheme. Todd M. Reischman's musical compositions and sound design effectively underscore all. Despite its rather dumbfounding array of characters, its brilliant though confusing overlapping of dialogue, and its extremely ambitious scope, The Devil's River is an important if not entirely ripe and satisfying milestone in what is apparently Sledgehammer's new vision.

"The Devil's River," presented by Sledgehammer Theatre at St. Cecilia's Playhouse, 1620 Sixth Ave., downtown San Diego. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 11-Mar. 11. $15-20. (619) 544-1484.

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