and COWBOYS #2

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

The Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company has racked up a surprisingly consistent record for productions far more finely crafted than one would expect from a small, low-budget fringe theater group–most notably, its recent staging of Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which could stand alongside many mainstream Equity productions of the same. So what happened this time? Was their current offering–a multimedia event combining Joe Rezwin’s film Wishful Thinking with a live-action performance of Sam Shepard’s Cowboys #2–thrown together at the last minute to finish off the season, or did everyone just get lethargic in the warm weather? Both of the pieces that make up this “event” are ably and adequately executed, but somehow they add up to a whole that’s considerably less than the sum of its parts.

Joe Rezwin’s Wishful Thinking, which features Mary-Arrchie actor Richard Cotovsky in its lead role, had its first commercial showing in 1989, opening for the feature film Drugstore Cowboy at one California theater. The story concerns a shy and colorless young man whose girlfriend gives him a box of underwear and the big good-bye for his birthday, abandoning him in a Chinese restaurant where the staff presents him with a birthday fortune cookie. “I wish people understood me better,” he says as he blows out the candle, but his fortune warns him to be wary of making wishes for they may come true. As the tale continues, he meets several people who understand him all too well–to his discomfort. When finally the young man comes to accept his life as it is (“She’s not coming back, and you can use the underwear,” he says to himself), someone comes along who could be what he really needs. But he doesn’t recognize her; he’s through with wishing.

Unlike many shoestring-budget films, Wishful Thinking presents itself very professionally by both technical and artistic standards. The narrative is coherent and linear with none of the irrelevantly arty interludes so often shoveled in by cinema directors so that we won’t forget who’s at the wheel, and the editing is pinpoint-precise–watch the sequence where Cotovsky hugs his girlfriend only to have her disappear into thin air.

There are many cleverly conceived shots as well–my favorite was the one in which three deliverymen carry pizza up several flights of stairs, with the camera aimed down the stairwell so that we see the white boxes spiraling kaleidoscopically in the dark. The performers are not given much to do in the way of acting, but they project their personalities clearly and consistently insofar as they are allowed. The only real fault lies with the poorly recorded sound track, which often forces actors to deliver their lines in a near-shout in order to be heard over the extraneous incidental noise.

Cowboys #2 is an early play of Shepard’s, first performed in 1967. The story involves Chet and Stu, two black-clad tramps waiting for Godot on a city street near a construction site. To pass the time, they play at being cowboys and Indians, watching for “prairie thunderstorms,” and wallowing in make-believe mud. The fantasy of death from a Comanche arrow, apparently, is preferable to the reality of slow decay amid civilization, which Stu describes as “chicken coops with chicken-do hanging on the wire. The chickens walk through it and their feet rot. They start eating it and their livers rot and their feathers fall out. They lie there in a pool of shit and feathers and make this little cluck in the back of their throat.” Gradually, though, the imaginary desert heat becomes lethal and the imaginary vultures begin to fly close, whereupon two suited and necktied gentlemen appear and primly recite the two lost cowboys’ opening lines.

Shepard is obviously saying something about the destruction of the environment by creeping urban development. He may also be saying something about the emasculation of the frontier myth or even the inevitable evolutionary process by which new men come to replace the old ones. Audience comprehension has never appeared to be of paramount concern to Shepard, and attempts to divine the “real” meaning of any Shepard play frequently prove as time-consuming and unrewarding an exercise as–well, playing at cowboys and Indians.

Director Robert Maffia seems to think so, too. His cast walk through Shepard’s cryptic script with a brave show of conviction and concentration but no word or sign revealing a source for their interpretation. In the role of Chet, Terry “Turk” Muller overacts with guileless enthusiasm, while Richard Cotovsky, as Stu, once again establishes himself as the most fascinating nebbish in Chicago theater. There is no reason whatsoever to want to look at this schlep, but when he’s onstage we can’t take our eyes off him. However he manages to do this, he does it extremely well–with the right handling his paraffin-pale visage could make him famous.

Wishful Thinking and Cowboys #2 won’t do it, though. As a cinema or acting-class final project, both would easily rate an A, but the combination left me oddly empty. This is particularly disappointing in light of the many fine productions Mary-Arrchie has given us in the past. Let us hope that their summer vacation is a short one.