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Fool For Love



B Sharp presents FOOL FOR LOVE by Sam Shepard in the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

For me, Edward Albee, David Mamet and Sam Shepard are the three outstanding, living, American writers. There are others, but the recent contemporary past seems to place them in high regard nationally and internationally. Sam Shepard, oddly, though, seems to be relatively under represented in professional production here in Australia, and, again, relatively, exists as a ‘cult’ figure in the ‘underworld’ of Australian performance history rather than as an artist of the first rank. FOOL FOR LOVE has never been represented in the subsidised repertoire in Sydney theatre.

FOOL FOR LOVE was first presented in San Francisco at the Magic Theatre in 1983 with Ed Harris and Kathy Baker, directed By Mr Shepard himself. The Magic Theatre was the original home of quite a number of the first productions of the Shepard oeuvre. FOOL FOR LOVE followed directly on from the last of his ‘family’ trilogy, TRUE WEST (1980), which we will see at the Sydney Theatre in a few weeks. The other two works of that trilogy being: CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS (1977), I don’t remember a professional production in Sydney; and BURIED CHILD (1978), seen at Belvoir Theatre a few seasons ago.

What has always impressed me about Mr Shepard’s work is the surreal imaginings of his worlds, the poetic/prose and musical bravura of the writing in support of that mighty ‘masculinity’ of his world’s visions. Both the poetry and the music superb in the reading of, and, particularly, in the sound and acting of.

TRUE WEST, simplistically, is an explosive examination of the bifurcation of the male personality of the writer, Sam Shepard. Austin and Lee, two brothers, one an artist the other a ‘cowboy’, beginning a reunion on the opposite sides of the accepted behaviour rules, who gradually meet in the centre of contest, and end in the other one’s shoes. Mr Shepard looking at the divide in his yearnings, the ARTIST: writer, actor, director, musician and the AMERICAN COWBOY: the ute, the spurs, lasso and the horse float, open air. The female characters in these plays are mostly symbolic and, relatively dramaturgically, mere ‘tools’ to the fierce examination of the male psyche and the titanic struggle of the fathers and sons relationships that preoccupy this writer – still.

FOOL FOR LOVE comes directly after TRUE WEST, and it comes ‘burning’ out of his evolving life experiences. During the filming of FRANCES (1982) Mr Shepard fell in love with Jessica Lange, subsequently marrying her. In 1993, Shepard in an interview talks of his work of the mid-eighties been influenced by feminism, “to the extent that ‘there was a period of time when there was a kind of awareness happening about the female side of things. Not necessarily women but just the female force in nature becoming more interesting to people. And it became more and more interesting to me because of how that female thing relates to being a man…as a man what it is like to embrace the female part of yourself that you historically damaged for one reason or another.” The play, FOOL FOR LOVE, Mr Shepard said, “came out of falling in love. It’s such a dumb-founding experience. In one way you wouldn’t trade it for the world. In another way it’s absolute hell. More than anything, falling in love causes a certain female thing in the man to manifest.”

FOOL FOR LOVE then to me, seems a further examination of the bifurcation of the Shepard psyche, but now into the female and male parts of his artist self. ”In this case, the important split is between the aspects of his creativity that Shepard identifies as male and female forces.” May (Emma Jackson) and Eddie (Justin Stewart Cotta) struggling for a way to find ease with each other as one. The male and female Sam Shepard, as artist. Is it possible? Or will it be a constant pull and tear away from the fatal attraction of the co-joined siblings? His ending is a prediction of his reality, to the subsequent writings, for never again does he write for the female side of him as sympathetically. May is almost unique in his creations. Like Eddie, maybe the Sam hunts the Countess of his appetite and May wanders his psychic plain looking for fulfilment that is still unrequited and The Old Man’s sins haunt him still. We are what we are – our ancestors immortal in us.

Imara Savage in her presentation and direction of FOOL FOR LOVE, gives an interesting production of a play but not the one that Mr Shepard has written. The domestication of the two major characters in an over realistic design both actual and metaphorically; the removal of the father figure away from the central conflict onto another level/sphere distanced from the major action in a corner of the auditorium, and the pacification of the violent, noisy, sexual muscularity of the slamming between all three into a kind of wimpy girl escape for May from an overweening narcissism of Eddie, from the burdensome provenance of the influence of The Old Man (Terry Serio), incapacitates the power of the Shepard play and substitutes ,instead, a novelisitic/ soap opera melodrama. Well done on those terms but not Mr Shepard’s.

Sam Shepard in his instructions to guide the creative artists asks for a linoleum floor, no rugs. A single cast iron four-poster bed, off centre. A formica top, metal table with two worn chairs, down left stage. Green plaster walls and a picture window framed by dirty, long, green plastic curtains. Doors to a bathroom and outside world. A space at stage level for a rocking chair covered in an old worn grey and black horse blanket. Much else, including a symbolic picture of Barbara Mandrell on the wall. This design (Michael Hankin) then, has a fully carpeted floor. A large double bed, dominating the centre of the stage. No table, no chairs. Smudged white walls. A space for The Old Man remote from the stage, with no rocking chair but rather a stool with the sound equipment for a guitar strumming effects and Country and Western Singer. An almost opposite set of choices that do not take into account the reason for Mr Shepard’s particularities. The fact that this Downstairs space is not easy to do this play in, therefore insists that creativity needs to be employed. It has been a whole substitution of other ideas, instead of applied invention, that mostly diminish the intentions of the author.

Mr Shepard asks that “the doors be amplified with microphones and a bass drum be hidden in the frame so that each time an actor slams it, the door booms loud and long”. The resultant sound violence of these instructions should be ‘criminal’ and frightening. The power of the noise underlines the masculine violence of the world of this play. To substitute it with the strumming of guitar chords, remotely, from speakers does not in any way convey this affect. That The Old Man figure is described thus” he has a straggly red beard, wears an old stained, ”open-road” Stetson hat, a sun bleached, dark quilted jacket with the stuffing coming out at the elbows, beat up, dark Western boots, an old vest and a pale green shirt” and substitute the costume and the function of the character with the look of a neat and clean Country and Western music man is completely subversive to the tension of the critical relationship between the two major protagonists and the audiences comprehension as to this man’s importance to the central problem of these two characters.

With this large double bed centre stage with a tiny fringe area around the bed, Ms Savage has Eddie sprawled on it on his back, preening his sexuality while May walks around the periphery of the space tentatively. The actual text asks for the two characters to stalk each other around the edges of the set, the walls reverberating, possibly with ever increasing tensions. The cat and mouse tension of this ‘game’ becoming wracked and fraught with apprehension of danger and also comedy. No such thing is possible here. Masculine activities loaded with threat: the grinding pattern of the resin into the glove; the deconstruction and cleaning of the rifle weapon; the lassoing of the chairs etc are all undermined by being excluded or diminished in the possible action in the designed space.

The Greek-gothic possibility of the play is reduced – the production scale here is motel bathroom sink. This play is not about an ordinary brother and sister. This is a play about the incestuous combustion of two fatally attracted siblings, burning up with desire for each other and the opposite need to submit to propriety as well – almost impossible. That the sins of the father, haunt them is the weight of the drama of the play. That the father figure in this production sits high and remote, playing production composed songs (Terry Serio) that are not of Mr Shepard’s invention, distant from the action of the play instead down there beside them, cajoling and confronting them, weakens the intensity of the passions. This is not just May and Eddie , they have the scale of Electra and Orestes. This is not just the struggle to avoid sex but a battle with the Furies of Fate, sirening them to a dreaded destiny urged and witnessed by a Zeus like figure. This does not happen in the Downstairs Theatre.

Ms Jackson as May tries fiercely, within the constraints of the production, to burnish a sense of the Shepardesque quandaries -she is admirable but frustrated. Mr Cotta seems to be involved wholly with the maleness of Eddie and not much interested in the power of his female reflection, May, and the battle between his other half, as outlined by Mr Shepard. Some self indulgence, here. Mr Serio is completely incapacitated by the directorial and design decisions to represent The Old Man as conceived by Shepard, but does well with what he has been encouraged to explore. The best performance with a real sense of his function and character veracity, in accordance with the text as written, is Alan Flower as the not so hapless Martin. Honest and mere mortal beside these two powers.

I have never seen Shepard performed at the levels of intensity that I have had in the United States. The immensity of the passions, the thrills of the violence, the outrageous humour and the glorious poetry never reach full fruition here. Maybe this is why he is rarely performed in Australia- we just don’t get him. And yet the themes and the settings of the plays are not dissimilar to an Australian context. I have been fortunate to see Gary Sinise and John Malkovitch in TRUE WEST at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York – overwhelmingly energised and comically pulverising, and a devastating production of BURIED CHILD at the American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco. I also attended rehearsals, in the last week, of the original production of FOOL FOR LOVE in February,1983. It was sexy, frightening and funny. It had the impact of Greek Drama.

I observed firsthand the particularities of the set and sound instructions of Mr Shepard, now found in his published text. And, boy, was he tyrannically particular, right down to the actual angle of the chairs. I also used to pass his ute with the horse float parked in the Presidio, greet a cowboy in boots, patterned shirt and Stetson hat in the theatre and see him transform and watch a maestro of his art coax the poetry of his score out of the artists he had attracted. That Mr Ed Harris had a broken forearm and Ms Kathy Baker was covered in bruises was testament to the magnificent battle that unleashed itself in the possession that Eddie and May demanded of them. Spectacular ownership and high stakes.

The production for B Sharp is OK theatre but not Sam Shepard’s play. Comfortable not confronting

Quotes come from The Cambridge Companion To SAM SHEPARD, edited by Matthew Roudane. Cambridge University Press, 2002.