THE SLOW AND PAINFUL DEATH OF SAM SHEPARD
at Cabaret Voltaire
When in the course of adolescent infatuation a man is raised to the level of archetype, and then promoted to the status of demigod, it becomes necessary to fire up the chainsaws of satire. And in Theater Oobleck Sam Shepard has met his nemesis. This is it–the comic vivisection of Sam Shepard, man and myth, or as Oobleck puts it, “the famous playwright and would-be rock star and cowpoke.” The real Shepard, if there is one, may survive to write engaging drama but, after this, I’ll be hard-pressed to take him seriously.
It all begins in the sticks of Arkansas, beneath the “mountains of madness.” Here lies the childhood home of Sam Shepard, whose real name is Shmool Dogpatch. Pappy still lives here, and so does Elly May, Sam’s sister, who actually wrote the play that made him famous and gave birth to his child, who’s buried out back by the “goat thing.” It’s to this home that a distraught Sam returns on holidays. Also here is the secret of the mysterious circumstances surrounding Sam’s birth, which, like his plays, will never be meaningfully explained.
The first time Sam returns home it’s Easter and he brings Patti Smith along. They aren’t getting along so well, but, as Patti says, “I’m a rock-and-roll star and I’m too cool to rip your jaw off and stab you with it.” Wild monologues ensue. Patti’s is incomprehensible, of course, yet deliciously weird. Sam delivers one about gold, which is just plain weird, and another about his plays. “I want people to sit still and pay attention,” demands Sam. “And even if the words don’t make sense, they can listen to the sound of them.” But there’s more going on here than just monologues, more than “just a finger of speech,” as Pappy says. There’s something buried out back. Something’s making noise in the attic. And Pappy invites Patti up into the “mountains of madness to catch a goat” for Easter dinner. After all, this isn’t the “Salvation Army International House of Roast Beef.”
I dare not say what happens in those mountains. More gratuitous imagery, as you might well imagine, and an introduction to the extremely personal mythology of the great Sam Shepard–just like in a Sam Shepard play! The rest, for now, is secret, except to say that Pappy picks up his guitar and sings a song about stigmatizing Patti’s brain. This, tragically, is at the point when Pappy bestows upon Patti the yellow Playtex glove of housewifery; foreshadowing her sabbatical in Detroit. Then there’s an intermission. I needed to catch my breath. Who are these Oobleck people? They’re great. And they sure know a lot more about Sam Shepard’s work than I care to. Not that you have to have complete command of Shepard’s oeuvre to enjoy this satire; you just have to have command of your bladder. But Oobleck doesn’t resort to the cheap shot. This is a devastating and absurd deconstruction of everything Shepard did, didn’t, hoped to but couldn’t, is, was, or appears to be.
In the second act, Sam returns home for Christmas, bringing along his pal Tom Wolfe. They’re a dapper pair in their white suits, striped shirts, and polka dot ties. And they’ve brought “ugly presents for the poor,” including a brown, poorly crafted rag doll that Pappy sticks in the meat grinder. “You can’t have Christmas without the poor,” comments Wolfe. “It simply isn’t done.” Yet, despite Sam’s friendship with Wolfe, and his own spiffy new persona, Sam always regresses to his hillbilly nature when he returns home, and it’s no time before he and Pappy are back up on those mountains of madness, clawing at the dirt and looking to unearth God only knows what.
This regression upsets Wolfe, but he has more important problems now. The Countess (direct from Shepard’s Fool for Love) appears with a handgun. Only it’s not the Countess. It’s more flak from the past-Patti Smith back in a housedress. And she’s mad, real mad. But she’s too late for revenge, because Elly May has already sliced Sam up and fed his vital parts to that noisy thing up in the attic. The thing, whatever it is, looks just like Sam and it can’t be killed. This new Sam is a demigod. He makes archetypes like Alan Alda look like Alpo. “I play polo. I’m sensitive, I have a deep understanding of women.” Who now will save the world from Sam Shepard?
Jeff Dorchen, who also plays Pappy, is billed as the principal author. He’s put together a sprawling satire–running two and a half hours including intermission–but then, the prolific Shepard has certainly provided him with enough rope. What’s amazing is that Dorchen is never redundant. His take-offs on Shepard, Smith, and Wolfe are priceless. Yet Dorchen moves on to more substantial turf lambasting Shepard’s style with monologues, musical interludes, themes, and motifs drawing from over a dozen of Shepard’s plays. Not content with this, Dorchen spins the wheel and steers merrily into the crowded cultural context surrounding Shepard’s work, posing affinities with Tennessee Williams, and making even stranger associations, so that Elly May is, alternately, Mae from Fool for Love, Laura from The Glass Menagerie, and Elly May Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies. It’s Sam Shepard’s worst dramatic nightmare come home to roost.
The Oobleck ensemble is, well, like nothing you’ve seen around these parts lately. They work without a director, but seem to get by quite well on a shared sense of humor. Mickle Maher plays Sam thoroughly, restlessly, and hilariously. Jeff Dorchen’s Pappy is a strange new version of the Al Capp yokel patriarch, sort of a cross between Jeeter from Tobacco Road and the old codger in any number of Shepard’s plays. Wylie Goodman (as Elly May) and Lisa Black (as Patti Smith) provide good supporting caricatures, but the script seems stingier with the female roles, which don’t have the creative latitude available to Pappy and Sam. A slightly nervous Randy Herman has the small part of Tom Wolfe, but he takes advantage of it like a cat with a gerbil.
I had a great time. I had come to think of Chicago as, not the home, but the historic landmark of comedy. Oobleck changed my mind. This is a generously funny, wildly intelligent, and mercilessly critical play. It’s not perfect. It’s somewhat flabby. But for every part that lags, there’s twice as much material that races by so crazily that you’re afraid you might miss something while you laugh. I suggest you go and see it, and I dare Sam Shepard to.