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Chicago and Icarus’s Mother, Azusa Productions, at the Breadline Theatre. No dramaturge today would allow Sam Shepard to do the sort of things he routinely did in his druggy early plays. In the 1965 one-act Chicago, for instance, Shepard’s protagonist delivers long monologues standing partly clothed in a bathtub while a parade of guests in their Sunday best traipse through his apartment. In Icarus’s Mother, first produced the same year as Chicago, Shepard pretends to give us a naturalistic slice-of-life drama about a Fourth of July picnic, then sucker punches us with surrealistic bits, including a series of increasingly wild tall tales told by two perverse practical jokers–the biggest of the tales involves the sudden crash of a jet–that come true.

Shepard’s early work is proof positive that there once was a time, not so long ago, when theater was unpredictable, when art was messy rather than slickly packaged, and when experimentation was encouraged. These plays can be cherished all the more when they’re produced by a sensitive, intelligent company like Azusa Productions. From their first foray into Shepard in 1996, when they performed Killer’s Head and The Unseen Hand at the Heartland Studio Theater, the folks at Azusa–especially director Maggie Speer–have proved they know how to gracefully negotiate Shepard territory, never sacrificing either the insanity or the heart. Brilliant casting and setting the right tempo make these crazy, rough plays come alive.

–Jack Helbig