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Sam Shepard’s time has apparently come. Again. One of America’s most prolific playwrights for more than three decades, a screen actor of laconic charm, and not incidentally, the father of two of Jessica Lange’s children, Shepard is suddenly—emphatically—everywhere. In London, where he is widely regarded as the equal of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, he has three plays running concurrently. A revival of his 1979 Pulitzer-winner, Buried Child, just opened to raves at New York’s Brooks Atkinson Theater (remarkably, it marks the playwright’s Broadway debut). Atlanta’s Olympic Arts Festival will soon host the world premiere of A Chef’s Fable, a play he is co-authoring with director Joseph Chaikin. And all across the country, financially pressed regional theaters have been enthusiastically rediscovering the appeal of his sparsely populated, modern-dress, single-set dramas.
Locally, Shepard’s furiously funny work is being championed by Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC), where artistic director Brian Hemmingsen has rightly concluded that it’s perfectly in sync with the scrappy troupe’s deliberately low-rent, warehouse-district Clark Street Playhouse. Having already served up a fine, nasty Curse of the Starving Class, Hemmingsen now supplements that mainstage evening with an even better off-hours attraction—a raucous, head-banging, wall-shaking, 74-minute Fool for Love that manages, against all odds, to be as achingly poetic as it is relentless.
Not that poetry will be the first thing that occurs to audiences as Nanna Ingvarsson’s slatternly Mae knocks Chris Wilson’s Eddie back on his cowboy-booted heels. Eddie has come more than 2,000 miles to tell Mae he loves her only to have her lunge at him with murder in her eyes. “I can smell your thoughts before you even think ’em,” she seethes, and what she smells is betrayal. Sitting in her grungy, Worst Western motel room with its shellacked wallpaper and rope-wrapped bed, she’s been roughing out plans to kill Eddie and his sometime girlfriend, “the Countess,” with different knives so their blood won’t mingle. Eddie will be dispatched, she says, when he’s sure he’s been forgiven and is finally feeling safe in Mae’s arms. A few moments later, as if to establish how effortlessly she can manage this, she knees him in the midst of a kiss, and leaves him gasping on the floor while she dresses for a date.
Eddie, for his part, is trusting but hardly defenseless. He’s brought along his rifle, the lasso he uses for roping mustangs, and a determination to meet his rival. “Tell him I’m your brother,” he says before deciding that that’s a little too close to the truth. Mae and Eddie go waaaaay back, and Shepard will eventually have them reminiscing about their familial trials for the benefit of the hapless Martin (Mark Rhea), who’s hoping vainly to take Mae to a movie. But not before they’ve hurled themselves and each other into corners and door frames, squirmed around the perimeter of the room with their faces pressed against grimy walls, and generally debased themselves. Love ain’t easy in the best of circumstances; in Shepard, it’s downright agonizing. Physically painful. Emotionally excruciating.
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Also very funny, a fact the playwright underlines by placing a curmudgeonly old man on the premises to preach realism from his rocking chair while claiming to be married to Barbara Mandrell. He’s only there in Mae and Eddie’s minds, but that doesn’t keep him from grunting at oddly comic moments and demanding shots of tequila. Director Hemmingsen, who stepped into the part when illness sidelined a cast member last week, plays the tight-lipped old fart with crusty humor and no little menace, qualities you might also say he brings to both his current stagings of Shepard. In Curse, his method is to keep everyone on stage wound up so tight that the audience aches for release. Here, he provides nothing but release, sitting quietly in his rocker at stage’s edge, watching his actors ricochet off one another and off Michael Murray’s surprisingly sturdy setting—slamming walls till they shudder, doors till they bounce. There hasn’t been so bruising a production hereabouts since Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater brought its Coyote Ugly to the Kennedy Center a decade ago.
Wilson’s Eddie and Ingvarsson’s Mae are ideally matched, as sexy and soulful as they are just plain dirty. When Ingvarsson dons a clingy scarlet shift for her date, then reaches into its bodice to slip off her bra in one fluid motion, she’s a hetero-cowboy’s wet dream come to life. And Wilson’s blend of macho posturing and quasi-adolescent vulnerability are a perfect complement. Rhea’s decent, slightly befuddled interloper has less to do—mostly the character just feels awkward at the situation he finds himself in—but the actor radiates a goofy innocence that stands him in good stead among such volatile folk.
WSC’s production of Fool for Love isn’t just strong, it’s also cheap by area standards ($15 a seat, or half that if you get same-day tickets at TicketPlace). What’s more, because the company’s off-the-beaten-track Clark Street Playhouse (six blocks north of the Crystal City Metro stop; or by car, one left and one right after the first southbound exit ramp on Route 1) hasn’t yet been discovered by much of D.C.’s theatergoing public, WSC is offering an additional boon to price-minded Shepard-fanciers: Curse of the Starving Class, which has been struggling at the box office during an areawide, warm-weather attendance slump, will be free to all comers through May 26.
Shepard’s characters aren’t particularly well-spoken as a rule, unless you count the open-sky reveries they embark on when they think no one’s listening, but they sound like orators next to the slackers in Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia.
Make that “fuckin’” orators.
“If life’s so fuckin’ futile, what the fuck are you gettin’ so fuckin’ mad about, fuckhead,” says one as he hangs out at the corner 7-Eleven, engaging in what he thinks is sardonic overkill. His name is Tim, and as played by Kyle Prue, he’s about as sarcastic a thirtysomething racist drunk as you’re likely to have encountered lately. He makes jokes about “striking a balance between Nietzsche and Bukowski” while swigging beer with Rollerblading drunks-in-training, some of whom can barely string words together to form sentences. He mocks their lame attempts at poetry and other forms of self-expression, and sneers at their dreams. In other circumstances, this might indicate discernment, but Tim sneers indiscriminately.
The persons he vents at most heatedly are 7-Eleven proprietors Nazeer Chaudry (Mueen Ahmad) and Pakeeza Chaudry (Ketayoun Darvich-Kodjouri), pleasant if frustrated Pakistani immigrants who are both the only adults and the only consistently persuasive characters in Jo Bonney’s hypernaturalistic staging at Studio Theater. The others are post-teen “types”—intellectual wannabe Jeff (Scott Andrew Harrison) and his “artistic” poetry-spouting girlfriend Sooze (Colleen Werthmann), stoned slacker Buff (Brion Dinges), drug-rehab graduate Bee-Bee (Tina K. Frantz), and escaped rock star Pony (Christopher Lane), who’s brought his hot-to-trot publicist Erica (Karen Garvey) back to his old haunts for a one-night visit with his buddies.
The evening’s insistent realism says much about what’s being attempted. Bogosian has crafted a slice-of-life portrait of disaffected collegians, and Studio is serving it up as accurately as it can. Drama, for better or worse, will be mostly in the details. Daniel Conway has built a 7-Eleven that looks real enough—from the macadam of its parking lot to the tip of its foreshortened sign—that patrons may well be tempted to pop in for Slurpees at intermission. Michael S. Philippi’s lighting is appropriately heavy on the fluorescent tubing. The blare of boomboxes fills the air.
But as the evening goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that, like the characters, the play is going nowhere fast. Bogosian has some tension-creating gimmicks up his sleeve—guns brandished at moments of crisis, for instance—but hasn’t actually fashioned a plot. Bonney trumps him in the staging by having characters lurk behind trash bins or atop the 7-Eleven’s mansard roof, where they can hear things they shouldn’t—but for the most part there’s no payoff. The characters say pretty much the same things behind one another’s backs they do to their faces. So you’re left with no real through-line and a lot of characters who’d be more fun if they were being interpreted on stage by Bogosian in one of his one-man shows.
Most of the cast members in Studio’s decently acted production look to be a half decade or so older than the parts they’re playing, which is rather a lot in the play’s late-teens/early-20s demographic. The characters consequently look overgrown and eager-to-amuse rather than young and restless much of the time, as does the play they inhabit.CP