True West

Accidental Theater Ensemble

at Stage Left Theatre

Cowboy Mouth

De-Jah Vou Productions

at Global Pie Studios


The Hypocrites

at the Neo-Futurarium

By Jack Helbig

Even though Sam Shepard’s productivity has dropped off considerably in the 90s–to something like one play every five years–in his prime he was prolific, turning out two or three plays a year in the 60s and 70s. To date he’s written over 40 plays.

Of course, lots of playwrights can crank them out. But Shepard is both prolific and original. If you sample a printed edition of his works or have the chance to see three of his plays performed well back-to-back, as I did last week, you realize that Shepard follows no formula. He never repeats himself the way David Ives does. Or leans on the trite and true, like Israel Horovitz. And he never merely squeezes out poor imitations of previously successful plays the way John Patrick Shanley does. Instead Shepard follows a simple credo: “I consider theater and writing to be a home where I bring the adventures of my life and sort them out, making sense or non-sense out of mysterious impressions.” True, this credo has led hundreds of less experienced or less inspired playwrights into the swamps of semiautobiographical self-indulgence, but somehow it’s led this writer to the fertile delta.

Shepard approaches each work with a fresh eye, an open heart, and a willingness to try anything if it helps him find his play. The result is that even his most conventional work retains a wild eccentricity at its heart that keeps it from becoming just another kitchen-sink drama about fighting lovers or unhappy families or bickering brothers. In the second act of True West, for example, he builds to a surreal climax in which a dozen or so toasters are all making toast at the same time, an olfactory trick designed to pull us back, as Shepard’s characters have been pulled back, to childhood. At the same time, it reminds us of the unresolved conflicts that keep popping up between the protagonists.

In a Shepard play you never really know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next. And you often get the feeling that Shepard doesn’t know either. At the same time, his plays are so well written that they’re often performed by young companies perhaps lulled into thinking his works don’t require much thought or preparation.

It takes a special kind of actor to make Shepard’s scripts fly, an actor willing to give himself over completely to the play, the way John Malkovich and Gary Sinise did many years ago in Steppenwolf’s legendary production of True West. Drew Affeld and Jim Carlson do the same in this debut by the Accidental Theater Ensemble, but they don’t make the mistake so many other young actors make in True West: they don’t overdo the violence and ignore the genuine emotional connection between the brothers. Affeld almost frighteningly inhabits the coyotelike Lee, half animal, half trickster. And Carlson as Austin, the good but weak brother with a stable life, has got Lee’s alter ego down cold. Both actors speak Shepard’s lines with an authority that raises the stakes in every encounter between the brothers, even in the early comic scenes in which Lee tries to trick Austin into loaning him his car. And when these performers square off in the second act, you really think they’re going to kill each other–as Shepard strongly hints they may do eventually.

The intensity of the two leads does diminish the other Accidental performances, however. Carolyn Bowyers is acceptable if slightly shallow as the mom, and Eric Lindberg is somewhat too comic as the Hollywood producer who might buy Austin’s next screenplay. But these flaws barely impinge on an otherwise finely conceived and executed show, directed by Jeff Ginsberg.

Cowboy Mouth is a more eccentric work, almost entirely lacking a story line and adding a fantasy character to the mix. Produced almost ten years before True West and written in collaboration with Shepard’s girlfriend at the time, Patti Smith, Cowboy Mouth gives us a long, dark night in the lives of two intensely creative would-be rock musicians living in New York City. Slim and Cavale are obviously based on Shepard and Smith–the story is that the two wrote the play together, pushing a typewriter back and forth across a table, Shepard writing all of Slim’s lines, Smith all of Cavale’s. But Cowboy Mouth easily transcends mere autobiography. And it doesn’t make the characters into boho proto-punk heroes, as you might expect from a woman as adept at romantic self-creation as Smith.

Instead, Slim and Cavale remind us a little of Shepard and Smith–he’s in love with cowboys and stories of the West, she’s steeped in rock-and-roll lore–but remain characters in their own right. You don’t need to know that Shepard left his wife and baby to live with Smith to understand Slim’s anguish over having left his family for Cavale. Nor do you need to be a member of the Patti Smith cult to appreciate Cavale’s interesting mix of contradictions: at once hard and vulnerable, cynical and sentimental, antireligious but devoted to rock and roll with the passion of an early Christian martyr.

In this De-Jah Vou debut production, Alex Ferrill and Maria Venegas wisely focus on the intimacy of Slim and Cavale’s relationship, because the ups and downs of that relationship–the fights, romps, quiet conversations, and periods of intense creativity–form the work’s real substance. At times this production is so quiet it feels like cinema verite, documenting the mundane lives of two ill-matched lovers. And like Affeld and Carlson in True West, Ferrill and Venegas commit so fully to their characters that they seem to become them. Venegas in particular puts her own urban Latina spin on the role, taking it over completely: two minutes into the play, all thoughts of Patti Smith disappear.

Falling between Cowboy Mouth, produced in 1971, and True West, produced in 1980, is Shepard’s 1975 play Action, a piece of absurdism so pure it makes even his 1969 science-fiction drama The Unseen Hand seem like everyday realism. In the wrong hands, this 45-minute exercise could easily be pure torture, as its four characters scream, run around, toss chairs, hang laundry, serve dinner, yammer incessantly, and stalk offstage in disgust.

Happily the Hypocrites are just crazy enough to make the play work. Unconcerned with achieving coherence, director Sean Graney focuses instead on making each moment of the play as precise as possible. When Lupe and Liza string a clothesline across the stage and begin hanging laundry in what was the dining room a moment ago, Graney never bothers trying to justify the action; it’s enough that Mechelle Moe and Monica Payne seem to know what they’re doing. Likewise, Christopher Cintron delivers Jeep’s long, halting, fragmentary, inconsistent monologues as if they made complete sense, which adds to the comedy.

We may leave Action knowing little more about Shepard’s four protagonists then we did when we entered. And we may never get a glimmer of what autobiographical event might have motivated Shepard to write this strange little play. But who cares? The unpredictable action onstage holds our attention. And that may be Shepard’s point, in this play as in all his others.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): True West uncredited theater still; Action theater still by Brandon Kruse.