Feral Theater

at Sheffield's

In the early 60s, when Sam Shepard, barely out of his teens, first began writing plays for New York's young off-off-Broadway scene, he wrote with amazing speed. Shepard claims to have written Chicago, for example, in a single day. As he told a reporter for the British journal Theatre Quarterly: "The stuff would just come out, and I wasn't really trying to shape it or make it into any big thing."

Usually he gained more in power than he lost in coherence by following this Kerouac-like writing method. As Village Voice critic Michael Smith once wrote: "It's always hard to tell what, if anything, Sam [Shepard's] plays are about--although they are unmistakably alive." The method's down side was that Shepard continually took the risk of coming up with something like 4-H Club, a play so plotless, aimless, and infuriatingly vague that Shepard's strengths--his ear for dialogue, his eye for odd quirks of character, his absurdist sense of humor--are all but lost in the chaos.

4-H Club begins strangely, with a mildly humorous discussion of how instant coffee can hardly be called coffee. The play is about three guys--Joe, Bob, and John--who spend their time wrestling, horsing around, and talking. Shepard builds ever so digressively to nothing in particular; where the climax might be in a better-crafted play, Shepard has placed a mildly humorous monologue about a town of little old ladies who become dependent on a lawn-mowing tycoon. The play ends as abruptly as it starts, having accomplished little in 35 minutes of stage time except to show how many different ways Sam Shepard can blow smoke.

It's possible that Shepard is just having fun, tweaking our noses a la Samuel Beckett, playing with our notions of what is and isn't theater. That might explain his insistence on breaking up the play's action--or rather its inaction--with several long digressive monologues, none of which draw us more deeply into the story. Such theatrical experiments may have seemed breathtakingly daring in 1965, when 4-H Club was first produced. But what we're left with 26 years later is a play fragment, something that works better as an actor's exercise than as part of an evening's entertainment.

That this production is the least bit interesting to watch is a testament to the talents of the three actors, Mark Talley, David Seay, and Brian Jude Leahy. They honestly seem to be having a hoot bringing their characters to life. And why shouldn't they? In the space of one act, each actor is given plenty of time to swagger, razz the other characters, wrestle, and generally act like an adolescent. Mark Talley in particular negotiates the absurdly long monologues with an ease that made me wish I was watching him in one of Shepard's better plays.

I had a similar wish for director Josette Di Carlo, best known for her work as a comic actress in such shows as A Girl's Guide to Chaos and First Is Supper. She directed ably, helping the actors create three distinct characters from Shepard's generic and interchangeable ones. But everyone's fine work is wasted on this formless piece of writing. Even the loosest, most playful acting in the world couldn't hide the shameful fact that this isn't a play, it's just 35 minutes of horsing around.

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