Sampling the Chekhov Theatre's Sam Shepard Festival, a CurtainUp Feature CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Feature
Sampling the Chekhov Theatre Company's Sam Shepard Festival

A busman's holiday in NYC over the 4th of July found me at the Sam Shepard Festival presented by the Michael Chekhov Theatre Company. Playwright, actor, screenwriter, and director, Sam Shepard, a favorite son of both theater and film, is a consummate insider who somehow retains an outsider's cachet. Producer Michael Horn's idea to bring to light all the plays, including early, short, and seldom seen pieces, 45 in all, provides a huge service to the world of theater. Some writers are happy to let their old work rest in peace, since they can't suffer the sight of it anymore. I hope Shepard is not among these, for this is a wonderful opportunity for audiences to observe the playwright's developing skills, obsessions, and themes.

I am familiar with maybe a third of Shepard's plays, and during two nights in town I was thrilled to see three that were new to me. What a luxury it would be to be able to experience the whole oeuvre, from bright, greenhorn beginnings through mature work!

In March 2001 at Princeton University I heard filmmaker Wim Wenders discuss how he and Sam Shepard had found common ground in the American West, and how Shepard favored character over plot. In the plays I just saw, Shepard's tendency to create characters with bad tempers was in evidence. Their explosive outbursts open his plays to all kinds of dramatic possibilities -- for the playwright as well as for the actors.

Angel City, which premiered in 1976, is directed here by Alisha Silver. A man called Rabbit (Raymond Hill) is a dislocated character. He's a Westerner, a writer possibly possessed of shamanic powers, who enters a surreal situation where victims and monsters all demand attention simultaneously, and occasionally morph into someone else. We can't determine their position and velocity at the same time, although we can enjoy the ride and collateral laughs along the way. Angel City might be a piece that would work better on film, where each subject can more easily receive emphasis. Although enjoyable, this production needs focus and it needs to lighten up. Complete cast: Raymond Hill, Josh Alscher, Jane Bacon, Michael Smith Rivera, Vance Clemente, Michael Heller.

Geography of a Horse Dreamer, first performed in 1974, is the most satisfying of the three plays. Another dislocated Westerner with a special talent finds himself in a bizarre situation. Cody (Tom Pavey), who hails from Wyoming, dreams the winners of horse races. He has been kidnapped, hidden away somewhere, and used by nefarious people bent on making money. Menace builds in act 1 with humorous, tortured brilliance, and the show holds promise of a bang-up second act. But when act 2 arrives, the baddie, along with much of the momentum, fizzles. As the action goes off in other directions, muscles that were flexed in the first act wimp out and new concerns show up. The story is character driven, but where are they driving? An unlikely ending cleverly gets the playwright out of having to resolve this complex play. However it is engrossing to watch. There's good direction by Ann Bowen and fine acting all around, particularly by Brian Tracy as a guard and David Elyha playing a pretty damn scary doctor. Complete Cast: Tom Pavey, Brian Tracy, Tim Scott, Peter Picard, David Alyha, Mark Stevens, Will Schneider

Chicago, which premiered in 1966, is directed by Tom Amici. It's a struggle to characterize this piece. More extended poem than play, perhaps it's a poetic performance art installation? Absurd and verbose, the main character, Stu, splashes in a bathtub and has brief interactions with other characters, notably with Joy (Liz Sanders), who pelts him with fresh-baked biscuits. Tim Scott, who played a guard in Geography of a Horse Dreamer just moments before, does a remarkable job with Stu. I wonder idly during the performance if Sam Shepard, like Andrew Greeley, never had an unpublished thought. Ccomplete Cast: Tim Scott, Liz Sanders, Kate Campbell, Will Schneider, Jason Kalus, Kirsten Carter, Mark Stevens

I've been to severely space-challenged venues in New York, Philadelphia, London, and elsewhere, but was surprised to find that the "Big" Little Theater on Ridge Street is among the smallest and least accommodating theaters I've ever seen, with a tiny stage and no backstage to speak of for the actors. It is amazing what they do within the constraints of this miniscule space.

The Sam Shepard Festival deserves more audience than it had on the nights I was there. It's high time that the output of this giant of original, off-kilter theater was seen in its prolific entirety. And the Michael Chekhov Theatre Co, a three year old company that works its heart out, is definitely worth a look. This labor of love began in March and it will proceed through December 2007. For information go to their website at

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