Performance diary: Sam Shepard’s A PARTICLE OF DREAD

November 28, 2014

11.26.14 I’m impressed that the Signature Theatre’s production of Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) is as powerfully acted and beautifully staged as it is, because the script doesn’t make much sense as a play. It’s more of a collage of poetic fragments, and in that way it bears a distinct family resemblance to many early Shepard plays, though the pieces add up to much less of a dramatic narrative than most of its predecessors. These days, when Shepard is not working for a living playing supporting roles in medium-quality Hollywood movies, he plunks himself down at his desk as scholar-in-residence at the Santa Fe Institute and does what a writer does: churns out pages. He’s said he’s working on a novel, slowly, and in recent years he’s been using his residency to explore fascinations with classic texts, specifically King Lear and Oedipus Rex, with their themes of exile, outcasts, identity, self-knowledge (or lack thereof), fathers and children, and blood curses. shepard 2008Shepard is an old man now – he turned 71 on November 5 – with three grown kids (one from his marriage to O-Lan Jones, two he fathered with Jessica Lange) and a fourth he parented (the daughter Lange had with Mikhail Baryshnikov). He’s single again, and when he’s not involved with his film or theater projects, he’s living alone in the desert, not far from where his own father spent the last years of his life before falling down drunk and getting run over by a car. Along with the questions his writing has always wrestled with – “Who am I?” and “How did I get here?” – now there’s the added poignancy of “How did I turn into my father?”

All this manifests in A Particle of Dread as riffing, short takes on images of prophecy, crossroads, blindness, wordplay, some of them with the wispiness of Shepard’s collaborations with Joseph Chaikin, all of them scrambled in time and space. Some scenes ostensibly take place in ancient Thebes, before and after Oedipus is born, including scenes of married life with Laius and Jocasta that Sophocles never wrote about (that we know of). Other scenes take place in the contemporary American Southwest, where a Las Vegas mobster has been murdered on a deserted stretch of highway, attracting the professional attention of a highway patrolman and a forensic investigator as well as the idle curiosity of Otto, a man in a wheelchair, and his wife Jocelyn. Plus, there’s a big streak of Irishness that comes partly from Shepard’s own ancestry and his admiration for Samuel Beckett, and partly from the play’s being written to be performed by Field Day, the theater company in Derry, Northern Island, co-founded by Stephen Rea and Seamus Deane.

particle rea goggles
Rea, a terrific Irish actor (The Crying Game, V for Vendetta, The Butcher Boy), has a long association with Shepard, dating back to the original production of Geography of a Horse Dreamer in 1974. A Particle of Dread is the third play Shepard has written specifically for Rea to perform in recent years (Kicking a Dead Horse played at the Public Theater in 2007, Ages of the Moon at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2009). It grows directly out of Field Day’s mission. The theater’s bio in the Signature program sheds more light on the play than anything else that’s been written about it: “By presenting an alternative analysis of Irish cultural history that highlights the shortcomings of the official narrative, Field Day has sought to make a cultural intervention into the failed political discourse of Northern Ireland, which, from 1969 to the mid-1990s, had descended into a seemingly unbreakable pattern of rebellion and repression…Whether read in ancient Greek or in the contemporary American and Irish vernaculars of Shepard’s new version, the Oedipus story addresses the idea of collective guilt arising from unresolved historical trauma – it’s an idea that particularly resonated with the original Derry audience in 2013, though the message is timeless and universal.”

I can see how certain aspects of the play might resonate heavily with the Irish actors who performed in the original production of A Particle of Dread, including Frank Conway’s set, a white-tiled abbatoir splashed with blood, a stark image of Ireland’s modern history. Americans have plenty of blood on our hands and our own “collective guilt arising from unresolved historical trauma,” as unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri, attest. But the ancient Greek, Northern Irish, and American elements mesh a little uneasily, as Shepard signals by bouncing back and forth from somberness to slangy sarcasm (“Piss on Sophocles’ head! The truth will set you free – that’s a crock of shit!”). Nevertheless, the actors give powerful performances. I don’t know how they do it, but surely Nancy Meckler’s steady direction helped guide them. The script requires them to abandon any such thing as coherent characterization in favor of performance-art-like commitment to strong images and transitory moments. It was only by giving up expecting coherent characterizations that I was able to perceive what the play was and to embrace its modest pleasures. particle_of_dread_hutchinson_still
Some moments that interested me: Rea as Oedipus in bloody overalls with goggles full of liquid dripping from his eyes down his cheeks (tears, pus); Rea as king speaking to the Theban populace through a hand-held microphone; Rea as Otto in the wheelchair, an image that echoes Shepard’s play States of Shock; Lloyd Hutchinson playing a somewhat confusing array of commentators – a bones-tossing oracle, blind Tiresias (with shades of Endgame’s Hamm, see above), a guy known as Maniac of the Outskirts – all with blazing eyes and the relish of a great barroom storyteller; handsome Aidan Redmond as a haughty and haunted Laius; Brid Brennan’s Jocasta, making her entrance bizarrely trapped in a revolving cage; and the several passages where Judith Roddy, the lovely young actress ostensibly playing Antigone (see below), sang beautiful tiny scraps of song (composed by cellist Neil Martin who performs live in a sort of balcony/window alongside dobro played Todd Livingston). There’s not a lot about A Particle of Dread that you could point to as an unqualified good show – but every moment of it screams Sam Shepard.

particle-roddy

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