Posts Tagged ‘sam shepard’

R.I.P.: Sam Shepard

August 10, 2017

It’s a very strange experience to write a biography of someone who’s still alive, as I did in 1984 when Sam Shepard was 41 and I was 30 (we were kids! I can say in retrospect). And then it’s even weirder when that person dies. I’ve been tracking Shepard’s artistic career and personal life with varying degrees of intensity for more than three decades, so his death July 27 hit me hard. Like his colleagues and fans, I mourn the world’s loss of an epochal original writer. On a personal level I wasn’t prepared for how keenly I feel the loss of…not so much My Subject but a kind of alter-ego.


When I was asked to write a quickie bio by Dell Books, to capitalize on his Hollywood celebrity (the Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff, the tabloid interest in his nascent affair with Jessica Lange), I took the assignment for two reasons: 1) because I admired the crazy rock-n-roll energy and poetic theatricality of his plays (like The Tooth of Crime) and 2) because I identified with him personally as a guy with a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic military-veteran father. I didn’t meet him in the course of writing the book nor while revising the biography for a second edition, published in 1997 when the Broadway debut of his Pulitzer-winning Buried Child dangled the promise of some new attention to the now-certified movie star’s theatrical body of work.

It wasn’t until 2003 until I finally got to sit down with him in St. Paul, MN, for a nuts-and-bolts interview for American Theater magazine; we talked again the following year in New York when I interviewed him for the Village Voice about his 2004 play The God of Hell. I feel like I know more about his personal life than anyone who’s not a friend needs to know (he was pretty private, and I respect that). I feel like I know a lot about him as an artist, which matters a lot more to me, and what I relate to most is his profound understanding of being psychically split between what happens outside and what happens inside.

In films Shepard reliably represented the many faces of craggy masculinity. It’s no disrespect to say he wasn’t a great actor – he was an economical performer and an iconic presence, which suited most of his film roles. His most memorable performance, for me, was playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film. I weep just thinking about the way he pulled Ethan Hawke into his arms and growled into his ear “Remember me!” His best-known stage plays (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind) revolve round the relatable subject of family life, presented in all its combative, hilarious, ridiculous mythological depth.


I always preferred his quirkier, stranger, more poetic and absurdist work because I felt him exercising his deepest passions there. (His 2012 play Heartless, above, produced by Signature Theater, is right up there with the wildest and craziest of his plays.) What I learned from meeting and writing about him was that he was profoundly a man of letters, extremely knowledgeable about certain pockets of poetry and international literature. He cared shockingly little about contemporary theater and only late in life delved into Shakespeare and the Greeks. It’s not surprising that Shepard had a lifelong love for horses (raising them and riding them). Much less known is his deep engagement with spirituality and philosophy, especially the teachings of Gurdjieff, a subject so close to his heart that when I interviewed him it was the one thing he wouldn’t discuss. These are the layers and flavors of Shepard’s work that I think will reveal themselves more as time goes by.

In last week’s New Yorker

October 22, 2015

recognition nyorker coverI haven’t done this in a while, and I’m still working my way through this week’s, but last week’s issue of the New Yorker was unusually stuffed with exceptional pieces worth catching up on:

  • “Thresholds of Violence,” Malcolm Gladwell’s riveting and disheartening report about how many school shootings specifically intend to replicate the massacre at Columbine. The piece leads and ends with a hair-raising account of a rampage that was aborted and concludes: “The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”
  • “Road Warrior,” Jane Kramer’s in-depth up-close-and-personal profile of Gloria Steinem, which increased my already high regard for the feminist icon exponentially.
  • “Drawing Blood,” in which reporter Adam Shatz introduced me to French-Arab cartoonist Riad Sattouf, whose book The Arab of the Future I can’t wait to read.
  • “Cold Little Bird,” Ben Marcus’s short story about a father struggling to adjust to the reality of his ten-year-old’s son personality change.
  • critical essays by Alex Ross and Hilton Als on two artists near and dear to my heart, Laurie Anderson and Sam Shepard (Hilton was kind enough to reference my Shepard biography in his review of the Broadway production of Fool for Love).

    Not to mention Adrian Tomine’s cover image (above), which will induce groans of recognition from many writers who live in NYC.

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.

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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

Performance diary: SHUN-KIN and SAVAGE/LOVE

July 14, 2013

7. 13.13 — Shun-kin at the Lincoln Center Festival, co-produced by Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre with London’s Complicite under the direction of Simon McBurney, has the theatrical stretch and narrative multidimensionality we’ve come to expect from McBurney, best-known in New York for Mnemonic (2001) and A Disappearing Number (2010). Never too many layers in a Complicite production. McBurney’s leaping-off point for this collaboration with a Japanese theater company was his admiration for the writing of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki  (1886-1965), especially his 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows.” Finding it difficult to create a theater piece from an essay on Japanese aesthetics, he shifted his attention to Tanizaki’s story “A Portrait of Shunkin,” which purports to tell the true story of a blind female shamisen master and her intricate, erotic, even kinky relationship with her servant/pupil/lover Sasuke.

shun-kin by krulwich
Actually, Tanizaki’s story is a sort of faux-documentary – a little like Borges, he enjoyed creating fictions that read like factual accounts. Perfect cue for McBurney to proliferate multiple narrative layers – the show opens with a prologue in which the longtime Peter Brook actor Yoshi Oida telling a personal story about his relationship to the material, and the play is framed as the recording of an audiobook or radio version of the story performed in a sound studio by a narrator (Ryoko Tateishi). Tanizaki’s story itself begins and ends with the author searching in a cemetery for the gravesites of Shunkin and Sasuke, and the chronicle is staged in classical Japanese style with the main character played as a bunraku puppet (wittily, after two child puppets have grown up, the adult Shunkin is played by an actress still manipulated by two black-clad puppeteers), while all the music the characters play is written and performed (exquisitely) by a master musician, Honjoh Hidetaro, who sits on his own separate platform. Stitching all these pieces together is the audience’s job and our pleasure – with of course the added layer of English surtitles projected on a screen unusually high up above the stage. It’s a beautiful and elegantly sculpted piece of theater, though not nearly as spectacular or affecting as Mnemonic or A Disappearing Number. You’re not really aware of how hushed and dimly lit the staging is until the final moments of the show, when the rear curtain rises to shine blazing white light into the audience, coupled with a roar of contemporary ambient sound – the roar of contemporary urban life.

One of the major pleasures of the production is reading the program notes, especially McBurney’s essay, “Searching for Shun-kin,” which begins with him in a portable toilet: “In Japan, sometimes it’s hard to know what you are looking at. I gaze at the symbols beside me, my underwear still around my ankles…” Oh, that Simon McBurney! He’s very comfortable in his body. (He played the central role in Mnemonic, largely in the nude, see below.) You can read the whole essay and all the program notes online here.

mcburney

7.14.13 — My friend George Russell has been working for several months on a production of Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin’s Savage/Love with his company De Facto Dance. I’ve been consulting with George about the production, so I went to the first of three performances at HERE and was pleased to note that the program credits me as dramaturgy consultant, along with Wayne Maugans, a longtime Chaikin actor who also gives a strong performance in the show. It’s an absolute hybrid of dance and theater, an unusual but not crazy approach to the open-ended poetic text, originally performed as a solo by Chaikin.

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7-14 savage love program

Theater review: Sam Shepard’s HEARTLESS

September 23, 2012


My (somewhat belated) review of Sam Shepard’s new play Heartless at Signature Theater, featuring a terrific cast headed by Lois Smith (above center), has just been posted on CultureVulture.net. Check it out here and let me know what you think. It’s quite an unusual play for Shepard, harkening back to his early, very wild and free plays — not to everybody’s taste but definitely to mine. The show runs only one more week, so if you’re inclined to go, don’t wait.

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