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Crazy Horse Theatre Company

at Cafe Voltaire

Four characters in a room. Four angst-filled characters, especially the guys--one a slightly psychotic wiseass with a penchant for smashing kitchen chairs, the other a hypnotized, helpless fool. Lots of outbursts followed by deadly, red-faced silences. Each character spinning around the others, contemplating his or her own belly button as if it were the center of the universe. Self-absorption--and self-importance--to the max.

"You find out what's expected of you," says Shooter in Sam Shepard's Action, early in the play, "then you act yourself out."

Tom McCarthy's performance as Shooter is the centerpiece of Crazy Horse Theatre Company's production of Shepard's early one-act play about (hey, it's Shepard) alienation. McCarthy is both frustrated and frustrating, beatific and horrifying, sensual and awkward. Although Shooter himself is seriously unhinged, McCarthy gives him such a sense of balance that he becomes the anchor in this emotional maelstrom.

Like so many of Shepard's early writings, Action is a drama of exaggerated, dramatic poses. The women's talk is almost elliptical, but the men give lucid, image-choked monologues about their visions, memories, and hopes. Then, because this is Shepard, they turn around and grunt or pop a vein in a rage. There's lots of walking around, lots of staring, lots of jumping up and down in the same spot. The silences are unnerving. Nobody's ever still. Everybody hates everybody else. And everybody loves everybody else. Action is existential, minimalist, and deliberately weird.

Shepard is especially generous to Shooter, which gives McCarthy the advantage; the other three actors--particularly the women--don't fare nearly as well. The women's roles are perfunctory, designed primarily to serve the male characters and move the story along.

Kate Churchill plays Liza, the one who appears to be in charge of most domestic duties, with just enough jealousy and anger to give her some depth and distinction. But Ruth Jacobson as Lupe struggles with her blurry role. Is she supposed to be sexy? Innocent? Cool? Nutty? It's hard to tell from her performance. But her uneven performance isn't nearly as undisciplined as Andrew Hawkes's Jeep.

Hostile and incendiary, Jeep is another of Shepard's macho romantics. He struts and shouts, pouts and threatens. Of the two men, Jeep is the one who does things--breaks up chairs, gets water, cleans fish. He's constantly fuming, constantly in pain. By contrast, when the klutzy Shooter attempts action, he fails rather miserably. When he goes outside to get water, for example, he comes back empty-handed, having forgotten his mission. After Jeep smashes a couple of chairs, Shooter insists on bringing the last chair in the house downstairs, and the whole ordeal practically undoes him.

That this works at all is McCarthy's doing. Hawkes, unfortunately, gives away ahead of time all of Jeep's moves, lines, and responses. Seeing Hawkes warm up to each explosion effectively kills most of its desired impact. Because Jeep is the piece's provocateur, Hawkes affects not just his own performance but everyone else's too.

But Hawkes isn't the only one whose seams show. This is early Shepard, which means the play itself is a little rough no matter what the actors do. And it's dated too: what was raw in the early 1970s seems sort of tired now. Never intended as a comedy--neither by the playwright nor by director Ben Werling--the Crazy Horse production nonetheless elicits a lot of laughs. Apparently, men going into violent emotional upheavals onstage is not nearly as shocking or disturbing as it once was. At times Action actually comes off like a parody of Shepard.

One thing the production has going for it is all the unusual props: a real fish that Hawkes cleans, lots of water, a baked turkey carved onstage.

But the plot itself is minimal at best. The story takes place in one room, where all the characters are trapped--by the elements, by poverty, by their own self-absorption. The relationships between them are unclear. Are they two couples? If so, just who are the couples? The intimacy between all four of them provides for just about any possibility. Is this a family? The answer, of course, is yes, in the sense that these people are all irrevocably stuck with each other.

"I have no references for this," shouts Jeep at the end, as he realizes the hopelessness of their predicament. Unfortunately, most audiences may have too many references--these kinds of theatrics may be too familiar for Action to have much effect.

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