To the editors:
They say there’s no accounting for taste, but there should be an accounting for bald-faced ignorance, prejudice, and bad temper on the part of critics.
Tom Valeo in his review of the Theatre of the Reconstruction’s current production makes himself out to be some kind of authority on Sam Shepard, but he has obviously never read the play, or he would know that the printed title is in fact The Mad Dog Blues. Still worse, he doesn’t seem to know that “Sam Shepard” is the pen name for Steve Rodgers. Even if I hadn’t already seen the production, Mr. Valeo’s parade of ignorance would lead me to distrust the rest of his review. His description of the theater sounds as though he has never ventured west of Halsted Street. I have always had the impression that the Reader was aimed at intelligent, literate people. Mr. Valeo’s display of ignorant squeamishness is an insult to our intelligence. I wish they would clean the place up too, but the dilapidation is precisely the point. This is the kind of world Sam Shepard writes about, and Theatre of the Reconstruction has elected to present the play in that environment. That seems to me a perfectly valid artistic choice. I agree that the play is “self-indulgent.” I wish director Peggy Dunne had cut it. But given her decision to stage this particular piece uncut, I think she makes a far better case for its dramatic viability than I would have thought possible. And I think a lot of that has to do with the amateur musicianship that Mr. Valeo so deplores. I don’t know how they sounded the night he heard them, but they weren’t half bad the night I was there. I don’t know what he means about the acting. It was appropriate to the piece. There is no characterization in the play–just caricature, and the players all entered into that with the spirit of gusto and fun Shepard must (or at least should) have intended. For my part I’m grateful to them for giving me a new insight into a writer I’ve never much cared for.
One of your other critics, reviewing Theatre of the Reconstruction’s last production said it had “a marvelous willingness to take huge theatrical leaps at the risk of ending up in a heap on the floor.” I think that’s equally true of this one too. True it has its quota of spills and misses, but the hits are palpable and frequent enough to make it a worthwhile evening of theater for anyone who’s willing to open his mind and let go of his preconceptions. Apparently Mr. Valeo isn’t.
Tom Valeo replies:
I’ll admit it: I violated one of the cardinal rules of criticism in my review of Mad Dog Blues–I let my exasperation overwhelm my critical judgment. In this diminished mental state, I never suspected the presence of wit in the program–the listing of Steve Rodgers as the author. Of course, Steve is not Sam Shepard’s real first name, and his real last name is spelled Rogers, not Rodgers, but I should have seen through such a ruse.
As for the title, well, in every book I’ve ever seen on Sam Shepard, Mad Dog Blues is listed without a “the” in front of it, but if the script is titled that way, OK.
I’ve got nothing against dilapidated theaters–I’ve seen some wonderful plays in them–but I’ve never heard one touted as a “perfectly valid artistic choice.” And I’m all for amateur musicianship. I just think all performers are obligated to ask themselves, “Is this really ready to be put before an audience?” If it isn’t, then there’s nothing glorious about ending up in a heap on the floor.