Every time a president named Bush invades Iraq, Sam Shepard writes a play in response. The first one wasn't exactly a tragedythe playwright called his 1991 States of Shock 'a vaudeville nightmare"but when history repeated itself, he was determined to approach it the second time as farce.
The God of Hell opens in familiar Shepard territory, a Wisconsin farmhouse where taciturn Frank (played by Randy Quaid) oils his boots and mutters about feeding the heifers while Emma (J. Smith-Cameron) dithers around the kitchen burning bacon and overwatering her plants. Soon, two cartoonish characters intrude upon this Midwestern idyllWelch (Tim Roth, making his American stage debut), a vivacious devil disguised as a businessman who barges in with an American-flag cookie as his calling card, and Haynes (Frank Wood), a nerdy scientist hiding out in the basement who emits bolts of light whenever someone touches him. While the action is zany, a steady undertow of disturbing references to torture, beheadings, and contamination accumulates, making the play darker, stranger, and more political than anything Shepard has written in years, possibly ever.
For the restless cowboy of American theater, it's apparently not enough to go out on a limb as a writer. The same night The God of Hell opened this week at the Actors Studio Drama School Theatre in the Westbeth complex, Shepard began previews at New York Theatre Workshop in Caryl Churchill's A Numberthe first time he's acted onstage since he and Patti Smith co-wrote and performed Cowboy Mouth in 1971. On the occasion of this West Village/East Village double whammy, Shepard agrees to an interview at the Jane Street Tavern after a preview of The God of Hell. Just a few days after his 61st birthday, he shows up sporting a sleek, grown-out buzz cut.
"I really wanted to write a black farce," says Shepard, "so I went back and studied Joe Orton. Nobody wrote better farce than him, and he was very dark. Not being as witty and clever as Joe Orton, I used Entertaining Mr. Sloane as a jumping-off place. I started with three characters, the couple and the stranger who comes to stay with them. The notion of somebody coming from out of nowhere and disturbing the peace. It fit perfectly with the Republican invasion. The whole storm that built up after 9-11. The Welch character came in last. I wanted him to be like something out of Brecht's clown plays. Tim plays him with the perfect tone: the demon clown."
Shepard's working title for The God of Hell was Pax Americana, an ironic hint at the play's theme of toxic patriotism. When Welch appears out of the blue, he pointedly asks Emma why her living room lacks "symbols of loyalty" and tries to sell her patriotic paraphernalia, which she declines. The minute she steps away, he whips out a staple gun and proceeds to cover the inside of her house with strings of little flags. A typically Shepardian theatrical device, this proliferation of objects is both comic and creepy, like the artichokes in Curse of the Starving Class, the vegetables in Buried Child, and the toasters in True West. But it also unmistakably refers to the blanketing of red-white-and-blue that turned the country's outpouring of post9-11 grief into something bullying and coercive.
"We're being sold a brand-new idea of patriotism," Shepard says darkly. "It never occurred to me that patriotism had to be advertised. Patriotism is something you deeply felt. You didn't have to wear it on your lapel or show it in your window or on a bumper sticker. That kind of patriotism doesn't appeal to me at all."
What is that show-your-colors mentality about? "Fear," he says. "The sides are being divided now. It's very obvious. So if you're on the other side of the fence, you're suddenly anti-American. It's breeding fear of being on the wrong side. Democracy's a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it's no longer democracy, is it? It's something else. It may be an inch away from totalitarianism."
Wary of being drawn into a political discussion, Shepard insists, "I don't want to become a spokesman for a point of view. I really want the play to speak for itself." He chose to write a comedy specifically to keep things ambiguous. An image of torture simultaneously evokes Abu Ghraib and Waiting for Godot. Haynes's bug-zapper handshake is a metaphor for radioactive contamination, but it's also a silly, fun theatrical effect. ("I get that static shock thing in the winter whenever I walk across a rug and touch something, which I hate, and I've always wanted to put it in a play.") Offstage events that sound apocalyptic or paranoid have real-life counterparts, such as the fire that began at Los Alamos in 2000 and burned out of control for three months, and the plutonium leaking into ground water from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado. "I want it to be that way," Shepard says. "It's mysterious, yet at the same time something is going on."
In the middle of our conversation, Horton Foote arrives for dinner with his son Horton Jr., who owns the restaurant. Shepard greets the older playwright, whom he met while acting in the TV film of Foote's Lily Dale. "I hear you're in rehearsal for the Caryl Churchill play," says Foote. "How's it going?" Shepard replies, "Very scary!"
Shepard encountered the Churchill play last February when he was shooting a film in Australia and a fellow actor loaned him the script. "I sat down and read it in one sitting and it absolutely blew me away. It's a short play, but I couldn't believe how powerful it was. It's a major, major contemporary play. I think it will go down as a classic." He admits that he doesn't read many contemporary plays. He has never seen or read any of Churchill's other works; the only recent play he's familiar with is Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which he saw several times on Broadway. Nevertheless, when he heard a New York production of A Number was happening, he called to express interest, only to discover that the part had been offered to Nick Nolte. "People have been trying to get me to be in plays for 30 years, and the first time I said yes, I had to wait for Nick to turn it down," he says with a laugh.
Aside from his admiration for the script, Shepard wanted to stretch as an actor. Though he's made 40 movies since 1978, he says, "Film acting is really the trick of doing moments. You rarely do a take that lasts more than 20 seconds. You really earn your spurs acting onstage. I needed to do that for myself. I would hate to say at the end of everything that I never did a stage play." The most frightening thing for him about stage acting is "the confrontation with the audience. Being observed that closely." Of course, the last time he tried acting onstage, he and Patti Smith were doing a heightened version of their own love affair, on a double bill at the American Place Theater with his play Back Bog Beast Bait, whose cast included his then wife (and the mother of his one-year-old son), O-Lan. After just one performance of Cowboy Mouth, Shepard split. "The thing was too emotionally packed," he said at the time. "I suddenly realized I didn't want to exhibit myself like that, playing my life onstage. It was like being in an aquarium."
Since then Shepard has been in front of big audiences for literary readings. "[But] to stand up and read poetry or stories is one thing," he says. "To play a character like this is a different challenge." In A Number, he plays Salter (a role originally performed in London by Michael Gambon), a man who deals with the unforeseen consequences of allowing his son to be cloned. (Dallas Roberts plays Salter's son and two of the clones.)
"The character I'm playing is dealing with a terrible, terrible mistake he tried to correct, and in trying to correct it he created an even worse disaster. On the surface he deals with anger, arrogance, denial. But underneath he's haunted by guilt and remorse. Underneath the language is this tremendous emotional base that you have to be vulnerable to. You have to listen very closely. You have to follow the veins and the rivers and the creeks and everything the language is leading you to. Every once in a while, it just erupts."
Churchill's writing is staccato, poetic, and elliptical. (Typical line: "It is, I am, the shocking thing is that there are these, not how many but at all.") The director James Macdonald, whose exquisite production of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis recently played at St. Ann's Warehouse, said of Shepard as an actor, "He's absolutely brilliant with language. He has a writer's ear for it and a musical ear as well. It's a tricky, intricate text, and he's learnt it with absolute fidelity and accuracy. His taste as an actor is towards minimalism, which is exactly right for the piece. It doesn't need a lot of external huffing and puffing. Just do the thing as simply as you can with the greatest truth you can muster."
The convergence of A Number and The God of Hell is a fortunate happenstance. The original plan was for the latter to be staged on Broadway by Matthew Warchus, who directed the revival of True West with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in 2000. Then a change in Warchus's schedule precluded a Broadway run this fall, and Shepard really wanted to get the play up while the presidential election campaign was still fresh in the public mind. As soon as director Lou Jacob (he and Shepard have the same agent, Judy Boals) came on board August 1, it was a mad scramble to find a theater and a cast to mount the show in October.
Previews began October 29, which meant only a handful of performances preceded the election. Noting the difference in response, Jacob said, "Before, the audience was more reticent. They were holding their breath more. Now it's a reality and they're gasping with horror."
Being back in New York is a big switch for Shepard. He and Jessica Lange recently sold their house in Minnesota and their 300-acre cattle ranch in Wisconsin and bought a new place in Kentucky, though they're staying in the West Village for the time being, since Lange goes into rehearsal herself in January for a Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. When A Number finishes its run in January, Shepard plans to head back to Kentucky, to ride his horses and work on a new book of stories, but he may be back and forth looking in on the Roundabout's revival of Fool for Love that opens in February and promoting Don't Come Knockin', the new Wim Wenders film he wrote and co-stars in with Lange. The future of The God of Hell remains to be seen.
"In a terrible way," Shepard says, "the election has caused the play to have more bite." He pauses and says very quietly, "I'd have sooner swapped."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.