Theatre of the Reconstruction

How bad can a show get?

I’ve often wondered, but I’ve never seen one hit bottom. Always something holds them up–a flash of humor, perhaps, or one believable performance. If all else fails, good intentions count.

But I think that, with the production of Mad Dog Blues by the Theatre of the Reconstruction, I have finally seen the bottom hit.

This must be the worst production currently running in North America. Nothing works, not even the program. The single typewritten sheet, folded in half, lists the title as The Mad Dog Blues. OK, so an extra “the” in the title doesn’t make a show terrible, but just below the title, the author is listed as Steve Rodgers. Fortunately someone caught that goof, scratched it out, and scribbled in Sam Shepard. That’s right, the Sam Shepard, the one who won the Pulitzer Prize and has written some of the most inventive plays of his generation.

It gets worse. Inside the program there’s a note “about the music” that admits, as I understand it, that the musicians don’t know how to play very well: “We planned on getting musicians to play for the production, but we had problems finding any who didn’t play on the weekends with their own bands. For one of our benefits we began to jam with some of the instruments we had lying around from our past. What was sparked was the idea that we play the music ourselves, since we all had the desire to be involved with live music.”

This sounds suspiciously like the “think system” of music education in The Music Man–if you think you can play, you can.

The band soon demonstrated the untruth of this theory. During the opening number, the lead singer, Larry Smith, couldn’t play his guitar and sing at the same time. His thin voice was chronically off-key. The drum seemed to be open to any cast member who felt the urge to thump during the show, I counted three different drummers. A saxophone, undoubtedly a relic from someone’s past, was blown, and once a piano was banged on, but for its percussive power, not for its harmony.

Let me just describe, as calmly as possible, what it was like to attend this production.

The Theatre of the Reconstruction is located in a dilapidated storefront on a dark stretch of North Leavitt. Push hard on the decrepit front door, step inside, and you’ll find that the long, narrow room is almost empty, except for the band standing around in the front, a few chairs against one wall, and an elevated platform against the other. The floor is bare wood, several windows are bricked up, and there is a gaping hole in the pressed-tin ceiling. Light is provided by a couple of overhead bulbs and a guy walking around with a spotlight.

The night I attended, there was only one other audience member, which was a good thing, because there were only a couple of extra chairs available, and the seat on one of those ripped out while a guitar player was sitting on it.

Actors milled about, musicians tuned their instruments, and at some point–I couldn’t tell exactly when–the tuning ended and the music began. While a couple of players seemed to know how to handle their instruments, most of the band seemed to be faking it. Obviously their desire to be “involved with live music” was easily satisfied.

When the song ended, the play began. The members of the band became the characters in the play, and it was quickly apparent that most of them weren’t any better actors than they were musicians.

Now Sam Shepard’s plays, especially the earlier ones, can be terribly self-indulgent and tedious. Without brilliant performances, they begin to look like the scribblings of a pretentious adolescent. Mad Dog Blues, which premiered in 1971 when Shepard was 28, is particularly susceptible to this problem, and director Peggy Dunne, working with painfully inexperienced actors and virtually no budget, has not managed to conjure up any brilliance.

The play is a phantasmagoria of images drawn from popular culture. The characters include Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Captain Kidd, Jesse James, and Paul Bunyan. (Even Babe, Paul Bunyan’s Big Blue Ox, makes an appearance.) The plot, which borrows elements from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Treasure Island, and Destry Rides Again, follows two aimless young men–Kosmo and Yahoodi–as they pick up women (including Mae and Marlene), search for gold, fight, die, come back to life, and reconcile. Time and distance matter very little (with no apparent effort, Kosmo catches up with Yahoodi in the Mexican jungle instantly), and the plot is totally capricious. This isn’t a play so much as a pastiche of assorted cultural icons, which would be incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with American movies, magazines, and music. Using these icons, Shepard manages once again to deal with his favorite themes-rootlessness, greed, alienation–while simultaneously pointing out that our view of the world is shaped to an alarming degree by pop mythology.

That’s interesting enough, but Mad Dog Blues goes on forever. After I and my fellow audience member had sat through 100 minutes of this hallucinatory collage, one of the musicians came up to the microphone and said, “That’s the end of the first act; we’ll be back in about 10 minutes.” I stayed in my seat, knowing that if I stood up, my feet would carry me right out the door, never to return.

Perhaps there’s a market for three hours of this kind of abuse. Fraternities will cruelly haze their pledges by forcing them to sit through “The” Mad Dog Blues. Bitter divorcees will send their ex-husbands.

But maybe there is a reason for seeing this show, besides the fact that it’s free. You will then have the pleasure of knowing that every play you see for the rest of your life will be better.