Identity—it’s something Sam Shepard’s characters have bad trouble with, something they can’t seem to get quite straight. Take Niles, the jazz pianist in Suicide in B-flat who destroys his past selves, his alter-egos, in order to free himself and his music. “I’m not sure if there actually are these other ones,” he worries, “or if I’m making it all up.”
It’s Shepard, of course, the contemporary theatre’s quintessential quester after identity, who’s making it all up. All three of the plays in the current Shepard festival running through Dec. 9 at La Mama ETC in New York—Suicide, Back Bog Beast Bait and Angel City—share an obsession with the difficulties of identity. Further, they are all plays that remind us that we are watching a play while keeping us fully engaged in the dramatic moment. They make us feel how hard it is to know ourselves, how hard it is to create art, how deeply fragmented existence is. And they manage to be funny while they’re doing it.
Watching a rehearsal, then, is like watching life itself. The actors are searching for ways to be, for suitable ways to express their characters’ existences. Watching director George Ferencz watching a rehearsal, slouching over his Lucky Strike, squinting up his eyes, is to see that Shepard’s sizzling visuals and high physicality are dominant concerns.
It is an early rehearsal of the last scene in Back Bog Beast Bait, where each character is transformed into an animal. The scene is a tricky one; it has to overwhelm us with sound and motion, risking every minute the possibility of looking silly. Dierdre O’Connell is kneeling on a table, locked into incantatory grief, rocking and shaking as if possessed, when suddenly she starts to snarl. Akin Babatunde seems nearly to unhinge his jaw as he practices his alligator slither. Jim Abele, looking much like the young Sam Shepard, pauses in his bull walk to demonstrate his version of an alligator slither. Still holding their scripts, the actors crawl, bite, roll, pick each other up, and knock each other down, and when Ferencz steps into advise or recommend, it is always about what they are doing rather than what they are saying.
But there is much to hear in these plays too, besides Shepard’s razzle-dazzle language. All three plays are music plays, and Max Roach, the legendary jazz drummer, is not only the festival’s music director but has composed all-original music for them.
Ferencz, who will take the plays on to Syracuse Stage, the theatre co-sponsoring the festival, in January, believes that “music is the dominant form of 20th century art.” So it is not surprising that he chose these three, having already done a festival of Shepard’s rock plays in 1979 at Columbia (including Tooth of Crime, Cowboy Mouth, Mad Dog Blues and Melodrama Play) and a bold, rock-infused Tooth of Crime last year, also shared by Syracuse Stage and La Mama. The shift from rock ‘n roll to jazz is, for Ferencz, a shift from “aggressive, driving power” to the “subtle and seductive,” to music that pulls you in rather than grabs you by the throat.” And it is not that there is music “in” the plays, or that it is added as some decorative device, but music seems to inform every aspect of this theatrical environment (even the company’s vocabulary is affected; words like “harmony” and “resonance” keep cropping up in conversation).
In describing the structure of a Shepard play, Ferencz uses a musical score as the graphic: “There is a melody line and a bass line playing against each other.” For example, in Suicide, the characters go through alternating contradictions of situations until both answers to the question, is Niles alive or dead, are played out completely. This becomes an interesting way of viewing Shepard’s radical alteration of dramatic structure, away from the linear and away from resolution. Acknowledging his difficulty with ending plays, Shepard himself has said: “I never know when to end a play. I’d just as soon not end anything. But you have to stop at some point, just to let people out of the theatre, A resolution isn’t an ending; it’s a strangulation.” Ferencz sees this as intensely dramatic: “If there’s any ending it’s in the audience. It starts on the stage and arcs and that energy force goes into the audience. It’s planted something out there.” And it is this stage-to-audience dynamic that Ferencz is most intensely committed to.
Music dominates the kind of acting he is after, too. Ferencz wants the sort of ensemble acting that functions as collective improvisation does in jazz. Shepard’s plays are famous for their big speeches—each character gets at least one, sometimes two spectacular solos, while other characters “play back and create a bass line that others come in on; they complement each other and create a new dynamic.”
Roach, whose face is startlingly scholarly and whose hands are startlingly large, is new to theatre and is clearly having a good time. He talks about instruments as voices, “a sax monologue,” and sees a jazz play as conversation and counterpoint between human voices and the instruments. For him “it’s like working in a jazz setting. These plays have that kind of structure and that kind of freedom.” Roach remembers how Duke Ellington would encourage musicians to “take the instrument into something new, go beyond yourself,” a music that is, like Shepard’s drama, high risk. “Duke Ellington wouldn’t say, ‘this is how to play it’ but rather let each musician bring something special to it.” This clearly echoes Shepard’s views in “Note on the Music,” one of two headnotes to Angel City: “The musician should be free to explore his own sound within that general jazz structure and may find other places in the script, not indicated in the stage directions, to heighten or color the action.”
Free is the operative word here. Aesthetic freedom and psychological freedom are, for both Ferencz and Roach, clearly connected to political freedom. They respond to Shepard’s plays politically, although this does not seem to be an overriding interpretation. Roach feels Shepard’s plays speak about and to the people, and Ferencz sees them as political in their progressive force, working against what he sees as a rising wave of conservatism in the theatre. Shepard “plays outside the box, he enlarges how we see things.” He works “with such a sense of freedom that it’s hard to stay immune. It’s contagious—it expands you.” It expands the actors, too, and it is not surprising that Ferencz rejects the inward-turning of the Method and prefers acting based on “imagination, invention, observation, using your eyeballs and hard-core research “
But, most important, that sense of freedom expands the audience. “They come out feeling not just a sense of ‘that’s like me’ but also a sense of wonderment. We prefer the theatre as a hammer, not a mirror,” Ferencz adds, the “we” presumably referring to the festival company (called CEMENT), his assistant Virlana Tkacz and La Mama generally: “It doesn’t reflect, it shapes.”
Shepard may be moving toward the mirror with his last four “realistic” plays, from Curse of the Staring Class on, and Ferenc allows that he doesn’t know where Shepard is headed. But he is not interested in the fourth wall or in conventional realism in these jazz plays—more to the point is the performance reality of “300 people in the audience watching 7 people on stage. To pretend that those 300 people aren’t there is very false. Consequently we go for that reality, the real reality.”
If performance reality suggests “metadrama,” a self-conscious theatre, then Angel City offers enormous possibilities for fun and horror in that realm. This play’s wild indictment of Hollywood is made even more astonishing by Sam Shepard’s much-in-the-media film career. The plot revolves around one of the bosses of the failing movie industry, whose name is Wheeler (one assumes there must be a partner named Dealer offstage). The only thing that can save him is a disaster film: “We’re looking for an actual miracle. Nothing technological. The real thing.”
They hire, not a scriptwriter, but an artist, “a kind of magician” to save the industry and the people like Wheeler who are literally being eaten alive by the city (their skin turns green and slimy). They want, “cinematically speaking,” something which will “drive people right off the deep end—something which not only mirrors their own sense of doom but actually creates the possibility of it right there in front of them. We owe it to the public.”
The writer fails, and in Act II identities are or transposed at an amazing rate until the artist becomes the producer and his skin turns green and slimy. The play finally seems to be more about identity than it is about movies.
Shepard demonstrates over and over again in his work that there is no Being, there is only Becoming, and that there is no end to it—one does not finally arrive at a definitive and permanent self, but is in a constantly transmuting state. In each of these three plays the last scene is one of spectacular metamorphosis. In Angel City characters not only switch into other characters in the play but between different levels of existence (person into showing character, character into film image). In Back Bog Beast Bait the characters become animals who are better able to articulate their natures than they were as humans. In Suicide in B-Flat the characters whiz through varieties of experience, creating and destroying identities as fast as they can put on a new costume and find a new death.
In “Note to the Actors” prefacing Angel City, Shepard writes: “Instead of the idea of a ‘whole character’ with logical motives behind his behavior which the actor submerges himself into, he should consider instead a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme. In other words, more in terms of collage construction iazz improvisation.”
This quality of improvisation (with its suggestions of freedom, the “leeway within the structure” which Roach talks about) contains Shepard’s intoxicating philosophy of the invention of self, acting yourself out as you go along. The festival’s costume designer, Sally Lesser, sketches during rehearsals and sees the design process as an organic one: dressing a character rather than costuming an actor. She makes it up as she goes along, just as Roach is writing the music as he goes along. When Ferencz encourages his actors to find the irregularity in a character instead of “finding the spine,” he is after a freer and truer way of character.
Shepard’s plays challenge our most basic ideas of ourselves. Here is a playwright who does not want us sitting out there in the dark, all comfy and secure and anonymous. La Mama and Syracuse Stage are mounting a triple-headed attack on that passive, middle-class view of theatre as “boulevard entertainment,” and Shepard has given them some of the best language in the theatre today, combined with the power of jazz.
Toby Silverman Zinman teaches at the Philadelphia College of Art and is writing a book on creativity and identity in Sam Shepard’s plays.
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