For Sam Shepard, the past isn’t another country, but an alternative reality where the rules of logic cease to apply. Since moving from his radical performance collages of the ’60s to his groundbreaking family dramas that began with Curse of the Starving Class in the late ’70s, he has attempted to snare the elusive quality of memory in theatrical visions that are as desperate and seemingly improvisational as our own recollections of childhood. Though Shepard’s focus has remained on the domestic (some might say loosely autobiographical) scene, his plays shatter kitchen-sink realism and its attendant sentimentality. Epic, unpredictable, and deliriously ironic, his anti-nostalgic tales create their own volatile forms, which at their best resemble a prizefight, at their worst a quickly evaporating dream. Their unwieldy nature is the source of both their power and weakness. The good thing about a Shepard play is that anything can happen; the bad thing is that it often does.
The Late Henry Moss—Shepard’s contribution to the Signature Theatre’s alumni season of new plays—underscores both the wildly inventive and erratic nature of his playwriting genius. The drama had its premiere last year at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, in a tepidly received all-star production that the author staged himself. Trying to avoid the same mistake, Shepard has enlisted his longtime collaborator Joseph Chaikin to direct its New York debut. But as the plodding, mixed-bag results suggest, this might be asking a bit too much.
Set in a squalid New Mexican adobe, the unhurried three-act revolves around Earl (Arliss Howard) and Ray (Ethan Hawke), two grown sons who return to the scene of their first nightmares to piece together the puzzle of their alcoholic father’s last days. Luring the men on are the unanswered questions of their brutal upbringing. Of particular traumatic fixation is an incident referred to as the “big blowout,” a watershed episode in which their drunk dad smashed his way into the house and locked their mother under the sink, propelling elder brother Earl to run away in his ’51 Chevy. Estranged for the last seven years, Ray has not forgiven Earl for leaving him in the lurch.
Shepard’s imagination continues to be fired by the destructive wake of Big Daddy. The stinking corpse of Henry Moss remains covered on stage throughout the first act, with Ray wondering why they can’t just dig a hole themselves and throw the body in. Drinking the old man’s bourbon and fondling his set of tools, the brothers enact their father’s chief legacy: hurt masculinity fated to become the wounding model it both loathes and longs for. That Shepard seems to be treading familiar ground matters little, as the best playwrights often remain prisoners of their obsessions. Imagine Stanislavski complaining that The Cherry Orchard rehashes the same thematic ground as Uncle Vanya.
Nor could one criticize The Late Henry Moss for trundling down clichéd stylistic pathways. Moving freely between a hallucinatory past and a taut-string present, the surreal action begins with a bloated Henry Moss (Guy Boyd) dancing across the stage in a Wild Turkey haze with a buxom Mexican woman. The identity of this cackling Conchalla (Sheila Tousey), who occupied Henry’s moribund last nights, stokes Ray’s agitated curiosity. Is she merely a jailhouse whore, or is she some kind of mariachi harbinger of death? Every fact Ray extracts from the menagerie of neighborhood characters only leads deeper into a mystery that’s as grotesquely carnal as it is occult.
Though the play is enthralling in a sort of Georgia O’Keeffe-meets-Dennis Hopper way, there’s something amiss about the pacing, which can’t be entirely attributed to the production’s languid direction. Granted, Chaikin doesn’t help matters by approaching each scene as though it were a self-contained Open Theatre acting exercise, but this seems more of a symptom of the play’s big-picture fuzziness. The Late Henry Moss doesn’t quite know where it wants to go, and in the absence of a definite path, momentum is generated by a string of ad hoc moments. Humorous as these can be (one hilarious piece of shtick involves a hunched-over Jose Perez as a Mexican neighbor inching across the stage with a bowl of strange-smelling soup), these routines don’t contribute to any sense of progression or inevitability.
Similar to the slobbering kitchen clash in True West, Shepard builds the Moss brothers’ simmering violence to an appliance-smashing crescendo. The mild-mannered casting, however, sets up obstacles. Howard’s bland Earl buries his conflicted filial loyalty so deeply we can only guess at its existence. One wonders whether the actor was too busy imitating Shepard’s Wild West reticence to figure out just who exactly his character is. Hawke has more success, subtly conveying the confusion of Ray’s grief with his backlogged sibling jealousy. (He even resents his brother for spending time alone with the corpse.) Though Hawke’s performance registers much truthfulness, his Tiger Beat pinup vulnerability makes it difficult for him to transform into a raging tyrant. It’s hard to believe this unblemished creature has even a tangential connection to the mangy Moss household, never mind that he possesses the sadism to force his suddenly paralyzed brother to scrub away the ancestral grime.
Still, even as you’re aware of these serious shortcomings, you can’t help admiring the freedom of imagination behind the no-holds-barred images. Shepard has many imitators, but no one to match his cunning psychological expressionism and comedic ruthlessness. If only he could have found a way to discipline his ungainly vision within the stubborn demands of drama. But he’s never been one to cramp his liberated style.
Distantly related to the dizzying improvisations of Shepard’s earliest work, though more akin to the collision-style theater of the Wooster Group, the Collapsable Giraffe test the boundary between creativity and chaos. As the strange spelling of their name attests, they have no affection for conventional grammar. Fearless in their anarchic assault, the company either doesn’t care about the rules or hasn’t yet heard of any. Their last show, Bend Your Mind Off—a co-production with Brooklyn compatriots Radiohole—was rumored to have even challenged Giuliani’s anti-sex laws. Ironically, their unpatrolled chaos makes it impossible to accuse Collapsable of wanton sensationalism. In the hermetic world of their Williamsburg garage, there’s a noble democracy of perversion.
Witch Mountain, Black Tarantula begins with an invitation from a mustachioed young woman to grab a cold Bud and a cushion for the wooden bleachers. A relaxed, “we’re-all-one-big-hipster-family” sensibility dominates. Actors drink and chat among themselves, aware of the audience, though completely natural about their unnaturally watched situation. The hush prior to the performance proper includes a good deal of giggling from cast members perched on a peripheral ledge. Microphone checks, staging cues, and the few necessary props are delivered with absolute transparency. The “total fictional lie” of theater, to borrow a phrase from the like-minded experimental troupe Elevator Repair Service, dissolves into a generalized uncertainty about the real and the artificially arranged.
Much of the production’s ingenuity centers on constructing the freewheeling theatrical environment. The stage action itself can be described as fragmented, anti-narrative, and mischievously self-parodying. Nothing is taken too seriously, though the actors commit to their individual moments with goofball intensity. Mad scientist Dr. Deranian (Eric Dyer) painstakingly teaches human speech to a grunting surfing creature (Chet Mazur). Later, the doctor runs experiments on Tia (Makeda Christodoulos) and Toni (Liz Vacco), two young girls with telepathic powers who are forced to stare directly into a “dream machine” and contemplate sex with their new uncle. Intermittently, Pussy (Amy Huggans) and Silver (Wyckham Avery), two bare-chested lesbian pirates, lead the gang in raucous musical numbers, whose brazen choreography flaunts all kinds of masturbatory maneuvers.
At a nearby watering hole after the show, a graduate student acquaintance commented on the interweaving of Disney and Kathy Acker. Academic sleuthing, however, is strictly extracurricular. Staying in the theatrical present without becoming hypnotized into an indifferent vacancy remains the audience’s biggest challenge. Needless to say, an aesthetic strategy that esteems awkward transitions, frequent interruptions, and attention that’s onerously self-regulating isn’t for everyone. Understandably, some may complain that the lighting and sound design demonstrate far greater artistry than the writing. (The program lists a “text wrangler,” which perhaps tells the whole, sloppy postmodern story.) But those made impatient by the downtown avant-garde’s insular madness can while away the evening with the help of free beer and their own daft musings.