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Master of Unreality

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La Turista

Azusa Productions

at Breadline Theatre

Suicide in B Flat:

A Mysterious Overture

Ranch Theater Company

at the National Pastime Theater

Back Bog Beast Bait

Azusa Productions

at Breadline Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Once Sam Shepard was young and sort of twisted and wrote plays fueled by fear and inspiration and speed in six weeks or less. All of these were a bit crazy, the way dreams are crazy. But they were also rich the way dreams are rich, full of resonant images and layered with meaning, and funny--in the alarming, offbeat way dreams so often are.

Back then Shepard loved nothing more than distorting--or outright ignoring--what anal Aristotelians call "the unities." Characters appear out of nowhere and change identities midscene. Time unexpectedly slows down or speeds up, and a play's location is likely to suddenly expand to include action in other places or dimensions. As strongly influenced by musical models as literary dictates, Shepard often introduces a theme and follows it with unpredictable variations.

Shepard wasn't just hotdogging to show what a virtuoso playwright he was, the way so many Yale- or Iowa- or other university-trained playwrights do. To watch these early Shepard plays today is to be reminded--as if we needed it--just how desiccated and plain safe most contemporary plays are. Even when a playwright is bold, as Tony Kushner was when he wrote the epic Angels in America, he tends to ruin the effect by announcing in various direct and indirect ways "Look what I've done! I've written something profound about America, the universe, God, and all that--listen!"

Shepard does the opposite: he takes important themes--about the search for identity, the yearning for meaning, the contradictions in the American psyche--and buries them in plays with superficially silly or comical premises. Or at least he used to. The 1966 La Turista concerns an American couple visiting Mexico who are trapped in their motel room by bad cases of Montezuma's revenge. Suicide in B Flat: A Mysterious Overture, written ten years later, begins as a parody of detective dramas: two incompetent flatfoots investigate the mysterious death of a prominent jazz musician. And the plot for the 1971 Back Bog Beast Bait could have come from a bargain-basement Roger Corman horror movie: there's a strange murderous beast on the bayou, and only our heroes can kill it. (But Shepard's work today pales in comparison with what he did decades ago. Not nearly as prolific, he squeezes out perhaps one play every two years, and then it's something like Simpatico: instead of playfully, subversively twisting the film noir genre here, Shepard focuses on the melodrama, producing what seems more self-parody than the genuine article.)

Lesser playwrights would have taken the premises of these three plays and milked them for their conventional comic or melodramatic effects. The bickering couple in La Turista would have tossed one-liners at each other a la Neil Simon; the foolish police in Suicide in B Flat would have bumbled their way to a Pink Panther-ish solution; the gunslingers would have killed the Back Bog Beast after a thrilling shoot-out.

Not Shepard. Each mundane setup, each set of apparent stock characters, provides him with an opportunity to explore the deeper questions that bug him, particularly the awful, baffling questions of identity: Who am I? What do I want? Does who I am remain constant, or does it change according to my circumstances and the people who surround me? How do I break free of this world of conventions and social masks and get down to the real me?

It's not surprising that these questions suffuse Shepard's work. They suffuse his life as well. Born Samuel Shepard Rogers in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, in 1943, Shepard took on his current name--and a new identity, that of the outcast cowboy artist--in his late teens while he was in junior college in California and rooming with Charles Mingus's son, Charles Mingus III. Shepard began writing plays soon afterward, but that role was never enough for him. He hoped for rock stardom, joining the experimental folk group Holy Modal Rounders in 1968 and abandoning his wife and kid to live with Patti Smith, another poet-musician obsessed with stardom. (They documented their tortured, obsessive relationship in Cowboy Mouth.) Shepard has also played the Hollywood game, starring in several high-profile "arty" movies, most notably Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) and Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983). Then in the early 80s Shepard met and fell in love with Jessica Lange, taking on yet another Hollywood identity: Mr. Jessica Lange--at least that's how the gossip magazines saw him.

Shepard approaches the question of identity from a different direction in each of the three plays currently running in Chicago. La Turista is the most daring and surreal of the bunch. First produced off-off-Broadway, it gives us four characters--two young tourists and the two locals who've come either to aid them or take advantage of them--who go through so many changes over the course of the play's two hours that we have no idea by the end who they really are or why they do what they do. We're not even sure whether the two tourists are a married couple, trysting lovers, incestuous siblings, criminals on the run, or a combination of all four.

Likewise the Mexican boy in the first act is one minute a cocky hustler, the next a seductive exotic out to score some gringa flesh, the next a dignified motel employee just trying to help, and finally, after the entrance of a preposterous witch doctor, a kowtowing tour guide explaining everything the shaman does, earnestly or cynically selling his culture. His speech goes through similar permutations: sometimes his English is heavily accented and broken, but at other times, to great comic effect, he speaks American better than the Americans. In the second act, Shepard complicates things further by shifting the scene to Texas and making the same young actor play the son of the local doctor, the American analogue of the Mexican boy in the first act.

Shepard's goal is to create a fever dream, a mind-fucking miasma of shifting perceptions and identities. Sometimes the weird world of the play comes across as the male tourist's projection. At other times it's clear that the male tourist is just a character in someone else's fever dream, perhaps Shepard's. But the playwright's point is never simply to boggle the viewer's mind. His plays always contain at least one character suffering a crisis of identity--in La Turista they all are. And if Shepard has his way, the viewer will suffer one too.

La Turista is not an easy play to pull off. It's a measure of Maggie Speer's strength as a director and of the talent of her cast in this Azusa production that they negotiate the rapids of the play so skillfully. Every turn in Shepard's twisty work, every shift in accent or attitude, every change in motivation seems absolutely intentional.

Eric Lumbard excels as the male tourist, a role that requires him to leap from whining gringo to hallucinating fool to ecstatic visionary in microseconds. Morphing from one state to another with alarming ease, one minute he's soft and cowardly, the next aggressive and bellicose, then he shifts again to seem a hipster on a natural high, grooving to the beat of his own drummer. Linh T. Pham too deserves note for the sensitive way he plays his spectrum of Mexican stereotypes, surrounding each performance with quotation marks so that we always know he knows that Shepard knows that these stereotypes no more reflect reality than anything else dreamed up by the feverish, fearful tourists.

In fact all of Speer's hardy ensemble deserve praise for being able to keep La Turista together on some level even when Shepard seems determined to pull it apart.

Ranch Theater Company's Suicide in B Flat is less successful. The play starts solidly enough with a standard-issue mystery-novel story. Niles--a jazz musician in the Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane mode--has been found dead on his apartment floor. Was it murder or suicide? Halfway through the investigation, however, Niles himself enters, wandering through the apartment with a female companion. Is he a ghost? Are he and his companion, Paulette, visiting from another dimension? (There's a hint that she has occult powers.) Or has Shepard superimposed another scene from another time and location on Niles's apartment?

Shepard never clarifies these matters. Instead he gives us another fever dream, this one consumed by notions of fame and public identity. Niles, known throughout Greenwich Village for his visionary jazz explorations, is torn between his love of notoriety and his dislike of the loss of privacy that goes with fame.

Like La Turista, this antinaturalistic work requires a strong cast and hip director. Sadly, Craig Himes and most of his ensemble are not up to the task. Jordan Schatz and Bob Kruse have trouble enough convincing us they're detectives--then Shepard flips paradigms, trapping them in the middle of a mystery more metaphysical than criminal. Likewise Matthew Yablonski and Janell Cox can't quite capture the devoted madness of Niles's two fans: they're supposed to know more than they say, but the way Yablonski and Cox play them, they actually seem to know less.

Only Michael C. Nelson as Niles and Jocelyn Golarz as Paulette enter into the play's inspired madness, both committing fully to their twisted characters. Nelson--his dark eyes flashing, his mouth twisting in various sour expressions--seems every inch the crazy, brilliant jazzman, only half in the world even on his good days, who may have left this world entirely for a higher, cooler plane. And Golarz plays all the facets of her character: girlfriend, muse, surrogate mother, spirit guide. The two are especially fine during the play's climax, when Golarz compels Nelson to kill all of his past identities, freeing him as it were from his former lives and leading him, she hopes, to a solution to his existential crisis.

Whether Niles succeeds or not is a matter Shepard leaves for the audience to decide. But unhappily this production is so muddled that even the play's moving ending falls flat.

I'm not sure even the strongest ensemble in the world could make the ending of Shepard's Back Bog Beast Bait--another Azusa production, running after La Turista--moving or remotely comprehensible. This odd fantasy, about a pair of gunslingers who've come to save a Cajun woman from a mysterious monster, contains plenty of wonderful Shepard characters: a hired gun who yearns to be something else; a ranting, Bible-quoting preacher who's clearly lost his mind; a pregnant woman, Maria, who may be carrying the Antichrist; and a sexy swamp witch who's either the play's most evil or most saintly character.

The plot of Back Bog Beast Bait seems positively traditional when set beside those for La Turista and Suicide in B Flat. Yet its ending is stranger and more incoherent. The moment the long-awaited two-headed beast steps onstage, Shepard breaks the play up into a series of dense, hard-to-follow monologues, each of which implies that the speaker is herself or himself a kind of Back Bog Beast. It's as if the characters had focused so long on killing the monster that it's invaded their identities.

Even if the ending doesn't make a lot of sense, the story leading up to it is a hoot, especially when the characters are played with the kind of flat-out determination displayed by C.C. Cook's ensemble. John F. Mays in particular makes a fine aging gunslinger, and Rebecca Blazer's sexy, energetic performance as the witchy Gris Gris helps jump-start this somewhat overwritten work whenever it seems in danger of sputtering to a stop. What really makes this production fly, however, is how deeply the actors seem aware--down to the marrow of their bones--of the tentativeness of identity in Shepard plays.

Like La Turista and Suicide in B Flat, this is the stage equivalent of a fun-house mirror maze, where all identities are transitory and people never know who they really are until they find themselves turning into someone else.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matthew Yablonowski.

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