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Fool for Love; Square One

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FOOL FOR LOVE

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

SQUARE ONE

Element Theatre Company

at A Red Orchid Theatre

What's great about Sam Shepard, like him or not, is that you can sense the intimate understanding he has of his characters and settings. You can see tumbleweeds rolling across deserted western highways, smell the stench of tobacco juice, hear the twangy drawl of country music. And the moment you lay eyes on his characters, you know something sinister, biblical, and possibly incestuous is going on. That's what makes Fool for Love cook. We know where we are, and we want to know more.

This play is vintage Shepard, turning the myths of Marlboro men and coyote country inside out, revising a standard country-and-western tune like "Stand by Your Man" until it becomes "Lie by Your Half Brother." Down-on-his-luck cowboy Eddie tracks down his old flame and half-sister May at a seedy motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert, where he reignites their forbidden passions and mutual hatred and terrorizes May's new nebbish of a boyfriend, Martin. The knock-down, drag-out reunion is observed by an Old Man, the spirit of the father who sired them both, who tries to reinvent his past so he won't have to bear any responsibility for their tragic and incestuous union.

Eddie and May are one of drama's classic fighting, biting, kissing, hissing couples, along with Kate and Petruchio, Martha and George, and Marge and Homer. Theirs is a magnetic union, impossible but inevitable as their fierce verbal and intense physical exchanges completely overwhelm their disapproving father and the hapless Martin. We're certain that no matter how hard they resist and no matter the obstacles, their peculiar form of love will persist. "You're like a disease to me," May tells Eddie.

Shepard is sort of the Bob Dylan of drama, sharing Dylan's fascination with biblical and western themes, which he addresses with black humor and a wry sense of irony. To be truthful, the Shepard mystique can wear a little thin. His perversion of biblical characters--Cain and Abel in True West, Abraham in Curse of the Starving Class, Adam and Eve here--has its appeal and certainly provokes more thought than most plays out there today, but after a while it gets repetitive and veers off into the realm of self-parody. Not unlike Dylan.

What saves Shepard from himself, and what causes his works to be performed so damn many times, is the brilliant acting potential provided by his scripts, with their razor-sharp dialogue, idiosyncratic characters, and furious physical interaction. Take Dado's multifaceted rendition of May in Mary-Arrchie's production of Fool for Love under the direction of James Schneider. Combining perfect amounts of sizzling hostility and desperate surrender, she embodies everything a Shepard production can be.

Her work, however, isn't matched by her talented costar's. Richard Cotovsky delivers Eddie's lines with an appropriately grim irony, but still seems miscast--in his matching pale pants and shirt he seems more janitor than cowboy, with none of the requisite Marlboro charisma. Matters are further complicated by Michele Filpi, whose loping, singsongy Old Man looks and sounds like a George Carlin character. Ted Koch does a fabulous job as the hopelessly addled Martin, but this isn't the sort of role that can make or break a play.

Schneider's direction is adequate, but occasionally sluggish and overly dispassionate. The chemistry between his two leads is lacking, and their violent and lustful inclinations seem unnecessarily subdued. In addition, the claustrophobic nature of Mary-Arrchie's space makes a lassoing sequence look positively absurd; one hopes Eddie's lariat won't bring down one of the low-hanging lights.

This is by no means a bad production--Dado's performance ensures that. But the play is nowhere near as compelling as it can be--and as it has been in several productions in Chicago over the last few years.

The trouble with Square One is that its author, Steve Tesich, seems to have only the vaguest understanding of the society and characters he's created. His well-paced, witty dialogue is diverting but never gripping, because he hasn't bothered to lay the appropriate dramatic groundwork.

The play takes place in a postapocalyptic society. Adam--a self-proclaimed "entertainer third class" who hosts a propaganda-based variety show, giving political speeches and singing cheesy lounge songs--meets, woos, and marries loopy Diane, moving with her into a government-owned co-op with the intention of starting a family. This marriage, initiated with Adam's assertion that "no matter what happens in my marriage, it will never be my fault," is doomed from the start, as giddy whirlwind romance soon gives way to tolerant indifference and finally tragic separation.

Square One is half parable about the ephemerality of romance and half political tract directed against the unnamed totalitarian society in which Adam and Diane live. The early romantic scenes have the splendidly airy wit that characterizes Tesich's best work (Breaking Away, parts of The Speed of Darkness), but the political commentary is so frustratingly ambiguous that it distracts attention from the clever dialogue.

The Yugoslavian-born Tesich throws in all kinds of hints about the elements of the society he's created, but they seem to have been made up as he went along, for a complete picture of the play's setting never emerges. There are portentous references to "reconstruction," "state-subsidized artists' housing," "third-class" and "second-class citizens," and other mumbo jumbo, but these glib phrases confuse rather than clarify. The audience is left with a series of funny and insightful lines within a dull, meandering plot.

Bibi Tinsley's sprightly portrait of Diane is endearing. She lends the perfect air of goofiness to Tesich's funniest lines, and her slow descent from giddiness to desperation is exceedingly well realized. Jim Donovan, provided with a barrage of well-crafted lines instead of a character, doesn't overcome the barriers of his role. His unctuous lounge-singer crooning borders on a cliched parody of a cliche. But the real trouble here is Tesich's senile play, which rarely seems to care where it is or where it's been, leaving the audience to care even less.

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