Sam Shepard one-acts: drama, drawn and quartered

Profile Theatre had its hands full portraying characters whose stories are shrouded in amnesia, aphasia, music and poetry.

“How was it?” asked an actor friend when I returned from a day immersed in Sam Shepard’s storytelling. “Mindblowing,” I … exclaimed? No, more like sighed. Because it was great in a way that made me very tired. By the point in Profile Theatre’s Festival of One Acts when a watermelon plummeted from the rafters and smashed on the stage floor, my own melon felt the same way: brain-sploded.

Beth Thompson, Chris Murray, and Nelda Reyes. Photo by David Kinder.

Beth Thompson, Chris Murray, and Nelda Reyes. Photo by David Kinder.

Since then, I’ve been poring over the most memorable moments from the festival:

  • Chris Murray and Andrés Alcalá portraying either Godot-inspired hobos suffering dementia and dehydration, or children playing war games—it was hard to say. (Cowboys 2)
  • Beth Thompson embodying and narrating the whole trajectory of a romance, from coy first meeting to giddy courtship to moments of comfort, boredom, suspicion, rejection, and eventual heartbreak … all while addressing an invisible partner. (Savage/Love)
  • Ty Hewitt hunched over a mic like a radio DJ, talking hypnotically about a changed point of view from one day to the next, that we don’t know but must suspect was brought on by his character’s death. (Tongues)
  • Murray and Alcalá again, this time as dueling audiophiles comically one-upping each other by naming the “best” sounds in the world. (Rhythm)
  • Alcalá as a lonesome long-haul trucker with a sinking superstition that the spirit of a dead raven haunts a feather he picked up and is controlling his vehicle’s course. (The Curse of the Raven’s Black Feather)
  • Nelda Reyes turning on a dime from a lost, confused vagabond seeking help to a manic, demonic being triumphantly rampaging around the stage (The War in Heaven)
  • The aforementioned watermelon, dropping in abruptly during Elizabeth Huffman’s soliloquy about blowing out one’s brains (Evanescence or Shakespeare in the Alley )

What exactly about Shepard’s storytelling is so demanding? He’s certainly not the angriest or most ardent contemporary playwright, nor the most mystical nor the most intellectual. But his words exert such a pull in so many different directions at once that gradually, he tears his subjects apart. He doesn’t beat his subjects to death; instead, he draws and quarters them.

In her introductory statements, Profile’s artistic director Adriana Baer summarized the actor and playwright’s multidirectional tug-0f-war:

“…you will hear the push and pull of the old west versus the new west, the city versus the country.  You will hear loss of love. You will hear loss of language. You will feel that in some way, each primary character is trapped.  Whether that be literal or imaginative entrapment, there is an active pushing against external forces.”  

In Hail From Nowhere, a man is convinced that he’s “lost” his wife at a hotel, but it turns out that he’s shot a gun at her and chased her away (and then somehow forgotten the incident?). When she calls her mother to explain the situation and her new whereabouts and name, her mom can’t remember her ever even being married, and further insists that her daughter’s”boyfriend” isn’t capable of such violence. (Intractable arguments between family members about events that should be  important milestones but have instead been forgotten are a Shepard staple; Buried Child was chockfull.)

It’s hard to tell whether Shepard’s characters are simply forgetful, whether they’re in willful denial and trying to re-write their troubling histories, or whether they’ve got full-fledged amnesia. Trying to figure out whom to believe, and why any given character might lie, is one of the subtle stresses of watching a Shepard show.

Another condition that afflicts several characters is a great difficulty putting thoughts into words. Characters struggle, repeat, pause and backtrack (much like the killer from Defunkt Theatre’s suspenseful spring offering, Fewer Emergencies) and their truth comes out only in fits and blurts, or in oblique ramblings that gradually come to mean what they intend. This is especially true in The War in Heaven, one of three featured pieces Shepard collaborated on with New York theater luminary Joe Chaikin, whose ability to verbalize his own thoughts had been compromised by a stroke-induced condition called “aphasia.” Other Chaikin collabs, Tongues and Savage/Love, also approach their topics—death and romance—sidelong rather than directly.

In Hail and some other works, Shepard’s characters each get allotted one point of view and have to battle the other characters to defend it. But just as often, Shepard instills just one character with an inner schism, forcing a battle against the self, often without anyone else onstage to play against.

Shepard’s sparse one-acts are the theatrical equivalent of an isometric workout, requiring the fest’s multiple directors and actors to hold their own resistance and tension within his poetic, provocative texts, knowing that if they slackened—even for a second—a performance could flop. Thanks to live music during some pieces and wry twists of humor throughout, this rigorous exercise doubled as a dance. Even so, there was no way to make it seem easy.

Profile Theatre’s Sam Shepard season will continue with a free staged reading of The Curse of the Starving Class on October 20, and True West November 6-23.

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A. L. Adams also writes for Artslandia Magazine and The Portland Mercury.
She is the former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

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