Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Shepard Country

I’ve missed Sam Shepard.

Back when I was in my early ’20s and still in college I acted in a pair of Shepard one acts, Action and Red Cross. Both were from his gonzo years, when he’d write impossibly uncommerical plays that would be performed in weird little fringe venues—the sort of venues that I’ve grown to know and love here in Seattle. The plays were crazy in the best and most theatrical of ways. In Action for example, a collection of strange refugees from some catastrophe make some sort of life for themselves, trying and failing to communicate with each other in a series of interlocking monologues. At one weird juncture I would instruct a fellow survivor how to clean a fish that had come up in the bucket from the well. I remember wishing I could write dialogue this beautiful, despite how ugly and strange the world of the plays.

Later I went on to direct a production of True West at my home town community theatre—and since only one male actor came to the audition (and then backed out), it was cast with my cousin playing Lee, me playing Austin and our aunt playing our Mom. Despite the incestuous casting it was a hit in small town Alaska. I think a lot of people who came to saw it, who had ended up in this weird isolated island town instead of choosing to move there, understood the character of the dangerous grifter Lee better than I did.

Now Collektor Productions has staged Shepard’s play A Lie of the Mind in ACT's Bullit Cabaret, his mid-career epic from 1985, right at the height of Shepardmania (just after True West and his bravura performance as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff). I can’t in all honesty say it’s my favorite of his works—its length and the repetition of thematic elements work against it. At times it comes dangerously close to self-parody. (Can't anyone in this play remember anything about anything?) But it sure is great to get a passport back to the strange world of Sam Shepard, if just for an evening.

I wonder if the reason that his plays have lost some traction with our zeitgeist is that his characters always seem to partly inhabit the irrational world of symbol—the sheaves of corn brought in throughout Buried Child, the Father’s ghost in Fool for Love, and virtually everybody and everything in earlier plays like Tooth of Crime or Angel City, which take place in landscapes constructed entirely of symbols. Back in the ’70s and ’80s it was hip and enjoyable to deconstruct uniquely American symbols like cowboys, farmhouses and honky-tonk bars, to take them back from the ad campaigns, country western songs and half-baked "American mythology" and make something new.

But for the last decade we’ve watched a corrupt series of politicians use one symbol of "American mythology" after another in a largely successful attempt to gain our support for their klepocratic economic practices and two longstanding wars, one of which we were lied into. So when a character like Ray Tagavilla’s Jake wraps a flag around himself in A Lie of the Mind and sets out on a journey across state lines, it seems less resonant, more dingy somehow.

The other issue, perhaps, is that in the last decade the gulf between the people that Shepard writes about—the grifters, the dispossessed, the uneducated, the poor—and the people who go to theatre has become wider than ever. We have lost faith and covenant with these people and they with us. Let’s face it: the people who live in the trailer parks, isolated farm houses and dingy motel rooms of his imagination look an awful lot like the people who voted for George W. Bush not once but twice. (That is, if they voted at all.) Shepard cares enough about these people to elevate their language to poetry. But what writer today believes in turning the stage over to the wisdom and beauty of the poor white hick? “Curse of the Starving Class,” indeed.

Still, it sure was a blast going back to Shepherd Country for an evening. The show’s cast attack the material with fervor and conviction, and I’m reminded of just what delicious parts he writes for both men and women. The term “aria” is overused when discussing all sorts of plays, because it often means that the writer has stopped the play so that one of his characters can go all poetical on us. But Shepard’s characters sing out in beautiful language because they’ve climbed as far as prose will take them. Even though I find “Lie’s” extra running time diffuses Shepard’s material instead of elevating it, it is still a wonder to hear a speech about a man’s shirt like Aimee Bruneau’s Beth delivers, where the act of putting back on a borrowed shirt becomes an astonishing riff on the weight of the masculine persona.

So cheers to director Rob West and all of the actors of Collektor for revisiting Shepard. It would be grand if it kicked off a revival or two. Believe it or not, Shepard’s written no fewer than 10 plays since Lie of the Mind back in 1985—and some of them, including Simpatico and God of Hell, are pretty good. (As far as I know, only one, God of Hell, has received a local production.) Let’s see what that rangy old guy’s been doing in the last twenty years, Seattle.

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