Sam Shepard Festival
nytheatre.com review by Various
August 8, 2006
Forensic & the Navigators/States of Shock
Sam Shepard writes plays from the gut. This thought came to me while watching Forensic & the Navigators and States of Shock, a current double bill at Michael Chekhov Theatre Company's Sam Shepard Festival. More instinctual than intellectual, more visceral than emotional, these plays—and pretty much all of Shepard's plays—need to be absorbed, like a shock to the system.
reviewed by Larry Kunofsky
Forensic & the Navigators is a 30-minute struggle between the counterculture and the muscle behind the ruling class. We're in the hideout of two guys and a girl. Forensic and Emmett sit across from each other, dressed as a cowboy and an Indian, respectively, planning some kind of insurrection while smoking a peace pipe. Oolan serves them Rice Krispies, eats a pancake, and does a song and dance. She's dressed in a hospital gown and acts as if she just escaped from a loony bin, which might be the place that Forensic and Emmett are trying to liberate. Eventually, two Exterminators barge in and start ordering everybody around.
The classic Shepard-switcheroo of social standing and identity takes place. Who are the outcasts and who is the establishment? Are Forensic and Emmett more at odds with the Exterminators or with each other? Whose side is Oolan on? The play is a Silly Putty version of the Sixties—a passionate but divided (and somewhat crazy) underground movement against thugs in uniforms representing a system that has betrayed everyone.
Director Tom Amici gives the proceedings the right dose of Pinter, sprinkled with the Marx Brothers. He lets the actors have fun with this craziness, and it's fun to watch. Matt Bralow and Drew Zechman are the most kinetic of the players, constantly moving, almost bouncing off the walls. Mark Stevens and Tim Scott play dumb as the Exterminators, but also give the characters insight. And Ali Costine as Oolan is the most spirited performer, with her madcap dance and an inventive way to eat Rice Krispies.
States of Shock is the more substantial play in the evening, both in length and in content. We're in a down-home Norman Rockwell-like family restaurant. The main characters are the Colonel, an older man, and Stubbs, who is really just a kid, but who is now mutilated and wheelchair-bound from his days in battle. The Colonel and Stubbs happen upon our restaurant during an outing away from the V.A. Hospital (or is it, yet again, a mental institution?). They order banana splits to commemorate the anniversary of the Colonel's son's death. The Colonel's son was blown to bits during the action that crippled Stubbs. Stubbs, being "the lucky one," is asked by the Colonel to reenact that fateful day using little red and blue toy soldiers.
The Colonel is as gung ho as Regular Army gets (which is pretty gung ho, indeed). He drinks a toast to the enemy, since, without the enemy, he says, "we would be nothing." Stubbs, at least at first, is too caught up with his own misery to help the Colonel put the pieces of his past together. Stubbs has to fight to keep the ammunition barrage in his head from destroying him. The only other customers, White Man and White Woman, an older couple, are indifferent to Stubbs's suffering, while the issue of their missing clam chowder consumes them.
Eventually, the Colonel and Stubbs engage in a deadly battle for the truth, for the lesson of history, for the upper hand, and for the hand of the waitress, Glory Bee. While the grieving father romanticizes the war, the war in Stubbs's head is unleashed upon the restaurant. Our way of life is threatened all over again, and regardless of whether one takes sides or remains indifferent, no one is sustained by this way of life, all are equally betrayed.
Symbolism this heavy-handed could easily fall flat, but director Joe Benenati makes sure the actors keep it real. The heavier aspects of the play are buoyed by the comic performances of the supporting players. Natalie Barback gives an over-the-top performance as the singing waitress while adding something touching to the zaniness. Allen Magnus is perfectly and amusingly cranky as White Man, and Judy Guyll, as White Woman, creates a real character out of what could have been mere caricature. The stars of the play (and the entire evening) are Steve Abbruscato as the Colonel and Aaron Firicano as Stubbs. The compassion and intensity of these two actors keep this very bizarre play grounded in something very real.
The Michael Chekhov Theatre Company is presenting every single one of Sam Shepard's plays in this festival. Based on what I've seen so far, this gutsy move is paying off with rich results.
The Rock Garden, Savage/Love, 4-H Club
reviewed by Miriam Felton-Dansky
The Michael Chekhov Theatre Company has embarked on a project whose scale defies that of their home, the tiny Little Big Theatre on the Lower East Side: between last March and next December, they are staging all 45 of Sam Shepard's plays. It's an undertaking appropriate to the hunger and ambition of the plays themselves, and if the company doesn't have the resources for serious production values, their scrappy aesthetic hints at Shepard's disheveled American landscape, and it's a pleasure to experience Shepard's lesser-known works done with enthusiasm.
Wednesday through Friday evenings in August, they're presenting a triple-bill of The Rock Garden, Savage/Love, and 4-H Club. Of these, the first and third—selections from Shepard's early career—are the most enjoyable, and, as commentary on the American myths of family and frontier, present the most compelling reasons for restaging Shepard's work.
The Rock Garden features family dysfunction in a drafty house: at the breakfast table, a wordless milk fight erupts; in the bedroom, a sick woman sends a boy for endless glasses of water. The last scene is the most startling: older and younger men sit in wooden chairs, the older obsessing over lawn care and fence painting. The son falls, gets up, and crashes again, ignored by his father, who drones on in exacting gardening-speak. Finally, the son launches into a detailed sexual disquisition—matter-of-fact and apropos of almost nothing. Then, just as abruptly, the play ends.
These moments would be sharper if J. Robert Zanfardino, who plays the boy, made stronger character choices; if the actors stuck to one performance style—movement vacillates awkwardly between stylization and naturalism; and if interminable scene changes didn't disrupt the otherwise thoughtful pacing. Even so, the actors evoke some of the scruffy yearning and the fits and starts of Shepard's language, giving the impression—as Shepard's monologues often do—that the struggle to articulate any given experience is more important than the experience itself.
If The Rock Garden explores the mildewy underside of domestic America, 4-H Club is an angry meditation on the American frontier. Three men in a trashed apartment, the 4-H mission poised on the wall, smash coffee cups, bicker over apples, and terrify themselves as they try to rid their home of rats. But though their fantasies involve shattering societal mores and ravaging untamed landscapes—Vance Clemente, Michael Smith Rivera, and Armand Anthony evoke an anxious pugilism in these men—they are incapable of even leaving their apartment. With nothing to conquer, it seems, the myth of the American West disintegrates, leaving little in its place.
Savage/Love is sandwiched between The Rock Garden and 4-H Club, and feels thin in comparison to both: two rows of actors in beiges and creams take turns reciting superficial monologues on the superficiality of love. Some of the tidbits are interesting, others less so; ultimately, the piece feels like a session from an acting class. If Savage/Love is an exercise, though, so is the festival itself: this combination of three plays shows little evidence of a larger programmatic or production concept, but that ends up being beside the point. What the festival provides is the welcome opportunity to bask in Shepard's fables of 1960s America—tales of identity and family that only feel more apt as they age.
reviewed by Miriam Felton-Dansky
In a cloistered room somewhere south of the border, an aging mogul makes his bodyguard search a glamorous stranger's purse. "No daggers? Poison? Bombs?," he growls, though her handbag contains no more than a couple of lipsticks. "Even the most innocent looking things are potential killers."
This now-common ritual, performed thousands of times each day in public places around the world, is usually perceived as a guarantor of public safety—a symbol of the preservation of life. In Sam Shepard's Seduced, the security check is the opposite: one incremental step on the journey toward an increasingly frightening death rite. In the Michael Chekhov Theatre Company's production of Seduced, this ritualistic element emerges late—but the more prominent it becomes, the better the production gets.
Act I, which introduces us to the sterile world of dying tycoon Henry Hackamore, feels burdened by the audience's (and, perhaps, the production's) expectation that a logical plot will soon reveal itself. Instead, Shepard reveals only disconnected moments: Hackamore chiding his bodyguard, Raul, demanding pineapple juice and back massages, and carping over the placement of potted plants. Two of Hackamore's sometime mistresses, the glamorous Luna and Miami, arrive, but they don't know why Hackamore's sent for them, and he can't remember either. The actors seem bored by the lack of revelation; Amy Cassel Taft and Hannah Snyder-Beck as Luna and Miami vamp energetically, but Shepard's written them as cardboard cutouts, and they don't try to be anything more.
As intermission fades, though, vamping becomes a seduction dance—one that leaves no Hollywood glamour-pose untouched—and it slowly becomes clear that the play itself is a death rite far more interesting than any of the characters performing it. When Hackamore demands that the women recount stories about Las Vegas, city of his obsession, the women—apparently happy to be unmoored from any pretense of logic—move seamlessly from seduction to memory ritual. Miami launches into a story from 1952; unsatisfied, Hackamore forces her to rehearse the retelling over and over, until she gives up and he blithely casts Luna in her role. Hackamore's delight at Luna's delivery of Miami's memory suggests some of the play's most interesting questions: if memories can be "improved" through the embellishments of strangers, is our past ever our own? If we are not an amalgam of our lifetime's memories, what are we?
The Chekhov Company's production design furthers the impression that Hackamore, in forgetting all of his own memories, has become no one at all—or more precisely, not a person but a performer at the heart of a classic death ritual. The Little Big Theatre's tiny stage makes Hackamore's sequestered room inherently claustrophobic, and props reveal that the dying man mediates all contact with the world with tissues and survives through infusions of "genius blood." The fakeness of the costuming—Raul's stick-on mustache; Hackamore's gray talons and powdered locks, which leave a white film on his black easy chair—clarifies the concept that these characters are less people than performers in a complex dance. As Vance Clemente's Hackamore and Michael Smith Rivera's Raul advance toward a crisis point, their performances suddenly gain momentum and creepy intensity. Director Joe Zarro elegantly guides the scene toward the dreamworld in which it belongs, giving the cast the freedom to revel in Hackamore's gloriously ambiguous final flight.