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Suicide in B Flat


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Open City Theatre

at the Immediate Theatre

A friend of mine who has been working on a play was startled when a fellow playwright asked her a basic question: Why do you want to write a play?

She had never thought about it, but to her surprise she was able to answer him: She is appalled by the power of the media to mislead and delude people. As a veteran journalist, she knows that newspapers, magazines, television, and radio shape our perceptions in subtle, capricious ways. In fact, they create a bizarre shadow reality that exists only in our collective unconscious, often detached from logic and common sense. (How else could citizens of a democracy praise a man like Oliver North for deceiving Congress and gleefully arming a terrorist army in Nicaragua?) She considers this outrageous, and in the farce she is writing she wants to ridicule the pompous, bumbling people who create the news.

The playwright smiled at her. Every writer has only one or two ideas like that, he said, only one or two themes compelling enough to inspire a heartfelt play, and those themes keep reappearing again and again, often becoming the trademark of the author.

But that means a playwright just keeps writing about the same thing over and over again, my friend observed.

That's right, he responded, but a single idea can be expressed in an infinite number of ways, and deepened to an infinite degree.

This creates a conundrum, however. An artist who finds an effective way to express a theme may start reproducing instead of creating. But an artist intent on moving forward must achieve some distance from those powerful themes that propel the work, themes that are an integral part of the artist's own personality.

Sam Shepard recognized this dilemma, and depicted his anxiety about it in Suicide in B Flat. It's one of his early plays, first produced in 1976, less than two years after he returned from England. During his three-year stay overseas, he told a reporter he was thinking about moving away from the type of writing that had made him one of the hottest young playwrights in America. "I'd like to try a whole different way of writing now," he said, "which is very stark and not so flashy, and not full of a lot of mythic figures."

He eventually did that in such plays as True West and Buried Child, but abandoning those mythic figures was harrowing and painful for him, as Suicide reveals.

In Suicide, this turmoil is embodied in a musician named Niles who has either committed suicide, been murdered, or just disappeared. The corpse that was found in Niles's apartment had its face blown off, so his identity is not known, but that doesn't matter--this isn't a murder mystery, it's an exploration of the playwright's mind. The very first line of the play indicates what's on the agenda: "Trying to reconstruct the imagination of it," says Pablo, one of the two detectives assigned to the case. The way Pablo states it, he is not trying to reconstruct the crime. Rather, he and his partner Louis are investigating how Shepard perpetrated this play, and they apparently have caught the playwright in the act of destroying his most cherished mythic images. These images are a part of the playwright's sense of self, and destroying them amounts to an assault on himself. Consequently, the plot revolves around a crime that appears to be both a murder and a suicide.

Shepard clearly identifies with Niles. In one speech, the musician describes living under a corrugated roof "that sounded like Balinese cymbals when it rained." He remembers his mother carrying a Colt revolver to fire at Japanese men who attempted to steal her laundry, and going with her to an outdoor theater in a Jeep to see Song of the South. These biographical details come directly from Shepard's own childhood experience on Guam, where his family lived on an Army base after World War II.

Like Shepard, Niles is intent on changing his musical style, but to accomplish this he must kill parts of himself. His companion, Paullette, is helping him by serving as the assassin. In one scene, Niles dons a cowboy costume and whimpers as Paullette prepares to fire an arrow at him. This is a vivid depiction of Shepard's inner conflict. One of the most common mythic figures in Shepard's work is the cowboy. Tough, self-sufficient, and fiercely independent, the cowboy provided Shepard with a figure who stood in contrast to the corruptions of civilized society, one who embodied values that Shepard admired.

Niles expresses the playwright's anxiety. "I hate killing this one off first, Paullette," he says. "Can't we save this one till last? . . . There's no guarantee I won't die along with him. . . . I feel as though his skin is my skin."

In a bold and brilliant move, Terry M. Gibson, director of Open City Theatre's debut production, chooses to present this scene on film. The blank back wall of the set serves as the screen, with the celluloid images of Niles and Paullette suddenly flickering to life on it. It's an appropriate choice--Shepard derived his image of the mythic cowboy from movies, and the film segment emphasizes that connection. It also underlines his growing contempt for a myth derived from cheap westerns. When Niles asserts that the cowboy was a hero, Paullette sneers, "He's no hero! He's a weasel! He's a punk psychopath built into a big deal by crummy New England rags."

Paullette's arrow fired on film becomes lodged in Louis's back onstage, suggesting that the gumshoe is yet another mythic figure on Shepard's hit list. Later, Pablo suffers a similar fate. These actions are specified by the script, but by combining film and live action Gibson emphasizes the curious connection in Shepard's mind between the movies and reality.

The film segments help distinguish the Open Theatre from the many other small theater groups that have been cropping up recently, but the production has other qualities as well. Shepard specifies that live music should be played during Suicide in B Flat, and the Open City people have David Sudnow improvising at the piano, with Kenny Tams on percussion. (Sudnow is the author of Ways of the Hand, an intriguing account of his own quest to master jazz piano.) Larry Schoeneman's lighting gives some shape and depth to a nearly bare set.

And the performances are generally effective, if not brilliant. The two detectives seem to be in different plays, however. Ken Kaden plays Pablo with a sort of Jackie Gleason fat-man noisiness, while John Kastholm, as Louis, seems to be striving for an air of dark mystery. Rhomeyn Johnson makes Niles's anxiety almost palpable; Catherine Price is properly cool and businesslike as Paullette, his assassin; Oscar Jordan plays Petrone, one of Niles's accompanists, as a hip but distracted musician; and Shannon McHugh, as fellow musician Laureen, provides one of the most bloodcurdling screams I've ever heard.

In Suicide, Shepard may have "killed" the cowboy and other mythic figures that dominated his work. He certainly moved on to a much different style of writing. But his progress still illustrates the truth of what that playwright told my friend. Despite major changes in his style, Shepard remains preoccupied by the same themes: Alienation versus integration, displacement versus the need for roots, the family as both breeder of neurosis and creator of powerful bonds between people. Despite the change in his writing style, his plays continue to explore the inner landscape, so that even the battling brothers in True West, Shepard's most conventionally structured play, at times seem like warring halves of the same creative personality.

Early in Suicide, Louis contemplates the chalk outline of the corpse on the floor and says, "The similarity between the positions of death and the positions of birth are too awesome to be ignored."

In Shepard's case, the two positions must have been indistinguishable, for killing off parts of his past gave his basic themes new life.

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