Strawdog Theatre

“He plunged off a cliff / the people all gathered / and pointed to him / they said there goes a bad boy . . .” –from “Sam Shepard: 9 Random Years (7 + 2)” by Patti Smith

You look at Sam Shepard now and it’s hard to believe how imbued he once was. How possessed. It seems even he can’t quite believe it. In his introduction to The Unseen Hand and Other Plays–an anthology of scripts from his downtown/Patti Smith days, roughly 20 years ago–he says, “The plays themselves seem to drift back to me as flimsy ghosts. . . . I can remember being dazed with writing. . . . I wrote all the time. Everywhere. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about it or continuing to ‘write’ in my head. I’d have six or seven ideas for plays rolling at once. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with the flow of material running through me.”

Well, it looks like the flow’s over. Shepard’s last produced play, A Lie of the Mind, was a diffident piece of work, interesting mainly for the impression it conveyed of the old rock ‘n’ roll mystic at a loss–groping for a breakthrough, a way to complete his early vision. Or at least to square it with his more recent career as America’s most sensitive Marlboro man. Copyrighted 1986–the same year as the introduction to the Unseen Hand anthology–Lie clearly owed more to craft than to compulsion.

That being the case, it’s a strange but useful shock to find yourself confronted, suddenly, with the Spirit of Shepards Past. And the Strawdog Theatre Company’s new show offers just such a shock. A trippy, atmospheric little artifact from 1971, Back Bog Beast Bait is Shepard possessed.

This is howling Shepard. Shepard of the surreal conceit, the mesmeric riff, and what Jack Gelber calls the “volcanic monologue.” This is Shepard the Beat visionary, conjuring up an apocalyptic America full of magic fools, jazz cowboys, and hairy nightmares.

A darker, more frankly hallucinatory cross between Easy Rider and Deliverance, Back Bog Beast Bait drags us into the Louisiana swamp country where a big, two-headed pig thing with boar tusks, glowy eyes, and telepathic abilities has been pursuing its own version of a final solution to the human problem. “It has castrated all the sons in the lowland,” says hard-bitten Maria, the pregnant widow and mother who’s trying to make a stand against the Beast. “It wants all children to die. All humans. It wants to stop our race.”

Maria’s hired a pair of played-out gunslingers to help her defend her shack and what’s left of her family. But neither one of them can be much use in what turns out to be a kind of psychic war, where shooting people is a superfluous gesture. The coarse young gunman called Shadow even threatens to expedite Maria’s defeat by bringing home a crazy/scary gris-gris woman with a bad case of the babbling voodoo.

In this play Shepard concedes nothing to convention or logic, and very little to intelligibility. Shadow, Maria, and the rest do and say all sorts of things for no apparent reason other than that it suits Shepard that they should do and say them. The ending dissolves into literal, if purposeful, gibberish.

But the overall poetic effect is perfectly clear. There’s a cool frenzy, a delirious lucidity to Back Bog Beast Bait that transcends all the famous bad-boy posturings and makes you wish Shepard hadn’t grown quite so far up. The play’s got a disquieting allegory in its bloody, weird heart.

Larry Novikoff’s direction comes close to sabotaging that allegory by turning it into a banal political statement. Fortunately, Novikoff makes the statement so ineptly, so incoherently that a casual observer might not even notice what he’s trying to do. Unless you’ve read the play, it’s easy to see Novikoff’s gesture as just another strange and inexplicable event in an evening of strange and inexplicable events.

And besides, there are other things to keep your attention. Like Katharine Donnellon’s ghostly, childlike singing to music by Emile Westergaard and David M. Pavkovic. Or Michele Gregory’s creepily convincing voodoo dances as Maria. Or Molly McNett’s all-around bizarreness as the gris-gris woman: picture the Cheshire cat speaking in tongues. McNett is a trip. Just like Shepard himself used to be.