Hoss and Bothered: An Elvis figure duels a Bowie figure.
Hoss and Bothered: An Elvis figure duels a Bowie figure.

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Twenty years ago, when U2 was working hard to replace its image as self-righteous ’80s moralizers in leather vests with a new identity as self-mocking ’90s satirists in leather pants, Bono sometimes quoted the playwright Sam Shepard. Twenty years before that, Shepard had penned The Tooth of Crime, which debuted the same year as Ziggy Stardust and A Clockwork Orange (the movie) and seems to have been milled from the same cultural grist, if less profitably. The sci-fi fable envisions, vaguely, a post-apocalyptic future wherein an aging rock singer in the Elvis Presley mold tries to stave off obsolescence by challenging a younger David Bowie type to a duel. Though both men pack pistols—in WSC Avant Bard’s vexing new production, Crow (the glam guy) sports an odd leather vest with a shoulder holster sewn into it—the mode of combat chosen by Hoss (the rock guy) is a “mind train.” Which sounds like some kind of dogfight on the astral plane, but turns out to be a plain old singing contest. God knows the big, scary 21st century turned out to have more than enough of those.

Shepard revised the play in the mid-’90s, chucking his original songs and hiring T. Bone Burnett to write new ones. The slow-burning ballad that opens Act 2 provides the most riveting three or four minutes of this production, with Tom Carman’s voice electronically distorted into something perverse and menacing. Acting or singing, his Crow is at once jittery and precisely controlled; the lightest gesture of his left hand renews our complete attention. He seems like he could actually be a pop star, which John Tweel’s Hoss never does. Carman’s magnetic work is compensation enough for the listlessness that surrounds him. But then, he’s got an easier part: Like Harry Lime in The Third Man, Crow gets to delay his entrance for a full hour while everyone else talks about him.

Here, however, that first hour here is sluggish and nearly inscrutable. Shepard attempts to do as Anthony Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange (the book), cobbling together a futuristic argot, in this case from radio-DJ hyperbole and beat poetry.When Hoss says, “I’m getting a little gray to follow the flash,” we understand both the sentence and the sentiment. It’s a rare moment of clarity. Hoss sits around his mansion for the entire first act, bickering with his girlfriend (Jennifer J. Hopkins) and firing psychics, or “deejays,” whose prophecies unsettle him. Poor Clye Durkee is the one who has to say, “I can’t amigo that, Hoss. I’m a doo-wop D.J. All I got is a lot of stacked up infodata.” Outside of the basic dynamic of an old man who fears losing his dominance to a young one, the world, the relationships between the characters, and what’s at stake all remain maddeningly opaque. In a program note, director Kathleen Akerely praises Shepard’s “merciful paucity of exposition,” which is the nicest possible way of saying you’ll spend the whole first half thinking, Buh?

By the time Shepard revised this thing with Burnett in 1997, its earnest meditations on the mercilessness of the pop-music fame cycle must have looked awfully quaint. He initially described Crow as looking like Keith Richards, but even in 1972 the Rolling Stones were already on to their second phase (and their second generation of audience). By the ’90s it had long been clear their fans would always be there, decades after they no longer seemed like a threat to anyone. Instead of the gladiatorial arena Shepard imagined, pop music turned into a flea market, where everything that had ever been available would remain available, slightly worn but at an unbeatable price.