Posts Tagged ‘stephen rea’

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.

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Performance diary: Mamet and Shepard

January 19, 2010


January 13 – It’s hard to know whether to call Race a classic David Mamet play or a generic one. It recombines familiar elements of previous Mamet plays in a way that inspires multiple and conflicting reactions – which is fitting, I suppose, because that seems to be how he wants audiences to respond. I recognize how individual his voice is at the same time that I feel slightly cheated by his recycling familiar tropes; I witness how he employs a playwriting formula in a way that’s almost cynically mechanical, and yet I can admire the ways in which that formula operates theatrically. At the center of Race are two savvy guys (extremely well-played by James Spader and David Alan Grier) talking tough about their line of work, in this case lawyering. (Their predecessors include the coin thieves in American Buffalo, the real estate hawks in Glengarry Glen Ross, the Hollywood producers in Speed-the-Plow, and the Washington insiders in November, to name a few.) They face off against a hapless customer, in this case a wealthy white businessman (played with suitable stiff unlikeableness by Richard Thomas) accused of raping a young black woman. (This character has echoes of the duped home-buyer in Glengarry, the turkey farmer in November, Bobby in American Buffalo, etc.) And there is The Girl, in this case a young, smart yet untrustworthy legal assistant – an always-thankless role (see precedents in Speed-the-Plow, November, and Oleanna). The wise guys spew volumes of blunt, rude, sometimes outrageous comments about race, sex, politics, law, justice, and truth (some of it reminiscent of November and Wag the Dog, for which Mamet wrote the screenplay). There is a key philosophical contention – that people have a need to confess – that is very familiar from other Mamet works, most notably the film House of Games. And there’s a ruthless way with narrative construction that Mamet is fond of and extremely adept at, throwing in plot reversals and character incongruities that defy logic and often feel extremely manipulative and contrived…and yet they succeed in creating a certain amount of tension in the theater. And in the case of Race, that tension is a reflection of tension in the culture about how sex, race, politics, and justice chase one another round and round the mulberry bush, in service of the American way, if not of truth. I was glad that my friend Misha Berson, visiting theater critic from Seattle, invited me to see the play with her. The last two plot points seemed lame, forced, unbelievable to me, but otherwise I appreciated the play and the performances.

January 15 – I went with Misha to see Fela! – my third time, her first, and she loved it as much as I did. The full house, fervent weekend crowd, and the momentum of a hit show had the cast working up a sweat big-time. I especially enjoyed having the leisure to spend more time watching the individual dancers, who are phenomenal. The show is such a spectacle that it’s easy to take for granted and overlook the choreography, which is not generic at all but amazingly intricate. And I never get tired to taking in every inch of Marina Draghici’s environment (above) and watching how it interacts with each number and the ever-flowing video. We sat in great seats, row G on the aisle, and John Lithgow sat right behind us. So in the processional after the curtain call, all the performers spied him and lit up and high-fived him. There are probably celebs in that seat many nights of the week, but it was fun watching how the actors deal with it. I bought the fancy souvenir program, fanboy that I am, just to drool over the pictures…but they’re from the Off-Broadway production and don’t quite give me the kick I hoped they would. But here’s a tip: if you want a free mp3 download of  the real Fela performing one of his biggest hits, “Zombie,” send an e-mail to felaonbroadway@fela.net and type “free download” in the subject line. You’ll get a reply instantly with a link to the track.

Andy met us afterwards for drinks at Pigalle and to look at the photo research Misha has been doing for her forthcoming book Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination.


January 16 – The University Glee Club of New York hosted the Cornell Glee Club for a concert at Alice Tully Hall that Andy, a fervent Cornell alum, bought tickets for, so I went along, like a good boyfriend. It’s kind of wacky watching a stage full of 100 almost-all-white alter kockers crooning sea chanties and Negro spirituals. The Cornell undergrads were a little crisper and more interesting musically. Their a capella doo-wop subset, the Hangovers, did a lovely rendition of “Fire and Rain.” Both clubs did a couple of numbers together, and then the conductor invited all the Cornell Glee Club alums in the audience to join them onstage for the school cheer and alma mater. Andy, a former Hangover, ran up to the stage as if his pants were on fire. Very sweet, however dorky. There was a black-tie reception afterwards, so we even wore tuxedoes! But the reception looked pretty stodgy so we bailed fast and wound up at Bartini, where Andy’s swimming-team mates were celebrating Win’s birthday. Whew! Talk about packt like a tin of sardines! And when the DJ sprayed the crowd with Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” the three queens next to me went apeshit, practically tossing the furniture in the air with drunken glee. As they left, one of them said to me, “I’m so sorry you had to see that. We don’t get out much….”

January 17 – My final date with Misha Berson for her most recent theatergoing spree sent us to the Atlantic Theater Company for Sam Shepard’s new play, Ages of the Moon. This is the second of two plays Shepard wrote specifically for the actor Stephen Rea to premiere at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s most famous theater. (The previous one, Kicking a Dead Horse, played at the Public Theater last season.) The reviews from Dublin focused on the play’s debt to Beckett, which is fair enough. It’s got minimal action, two guys sitting on a porch in some desolate location philosophizing – not unlike Waiting for Godot, the first play that Shepard ever encountered and that launched his playwriting career. Misha and I both have long, intricate histories with Shepard. Misha came of age as a theater critic in the Bay Area when Shepard was out there in residence at the Magic Theatre, in his pre-Jessica Lange days. And I wrote a biography of Shepard that was first published in 1985, then again in a revised edition in 1997. I can’t really encounter any of Shepard’s work with any other perspective than that of The Biographer, and given what I know, all his writing comes across as intricately autobiographical.

As with David Mamet (see above), Shepard has a certain formula that he returns to repeatedly. His writing has virtually always been a dialogue with himself. At the center of many, many, many of his plays are two guys bantering – True West is the best-known, and a perfect example of one male ego split into two parts, one sort of polite and erudite, the other ornery and given to bursts of macho violence that would be tired clichés if they weren’t so comically lame. Ages of the Moon harks back to Shepard’s very earliest plays, Cowboys and Rock Garden (his first double-bill in New York City), both two-handers, but forwarded now to middle age. All of Shepard’s writing these days (including his prose, like the new collection Days Out of Days, which Walter Kirn reviews on the front page of today’s Sunday NY Times Book Review) chronicles the restlessness of his soul, barely acknowledging his 30-year relationship with Lange and his movie stardom (he’s made 50 movies, most recently playing Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire’s father in Brothers) but reflecting his incessant cross-country drinking, driving, and guilty womanizing. Ages of the Moon begins, like any number of Shepard’s plays, with the main character, Ames (Rea), having summoned his best buddy, Byron (Sean McGinley), to his side to commiserate over the latest, always seemingly irreconcilable blowout with his woman. This time she found scribbled on his fisherman’s map a woman’s name and phone number, a woman Ames can barely remember and would never ever think of calling up “even for a minor blowjob.”

These two guys sit drinking bourbon all day long, waiting for the total eclipse of the moon, as Ames rambles through a disjointed remembrance of his beloved, how they met and cemented their relationship, including a wacky story involving Roger Miller. In advance, it sounded like thin soup, and I suppose it is, relatively speaking, but I was surprised at how much it held my interest, thanks to no small degree to the Irishmen who staged (Jimmy Fay) and performed it. Rea is a wonderfully haggard actor, perfectly suited to span the gap between Beckett and Shepard, and McGinley, who’s new to me, is sensational in what could be a thankless second-banana role. Although the characters are absolutely American, holed up in a cabin somewhere in Virginia or Kentucky, framed by country music classics, the Irish/Beckett flavor seeps out in their synchronized bourbon-sipping and their wry humor, understated where American actors would be tempted to amp up the slapstick.

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