It might have worked.
Mad Cat Theatre Company's new production of Sam Shepard's Action, a one-act play passing for a full evening of theater, has a lot going on: screaming and chair-throwing, fish-filleting onstage, what looks like a Pollo Tropical chicken passing for a Christmas meal, lots of drooly finger-licking, bulky winter clothes, and the sounds of a nasty snowstorm outside. Existentialism with an American accent. Maybe even a good play by an artist very much worth exploring. But it hasn't turned out that way.
The sad thing is that a production such as this one at the Light Box has a different effect. Directed by Paul Tei and starring Todd Allen Durkin, Ivonne Azurdia, Michaela Cronan, and Erik Fabregat, Action does little to add luster to Shepard's reputation. For all its trappings of significance, it is a loud but dull evening of theater. It does not make a case for any deeper meaning behind the plight of a quartet of friends caught in a really unpleasant dinner, it exposes the limitations of most of the cast, and it challenges the wisdom of Mad Cat's choice.
Shepard, of course, remains a work in progress, a promise whose fulfillment may still hold a few surprises, a formidable presence in American theater. He is himself an actor of considerable charm and he clearly writes roles made for actors, especially young actors, to enjoy. It is easy to forget that, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, he was the all-American wunderkind of the avant-garde. Before becoming the poster boy for manic yet somehow earnest hyperrealism in a straight-macho, off-Broadway reflection of Middle America (1980's True West was a turning point in his career both in terms of popularity and artistic direction), the signs seemed to point elsewhere. A surrealist veneer hinted at depths the audience seemed more than willing to grant him, and play after early play reinforced the hope that there was something new here, perhaps an American Beckett, certainly the voice of a new generation filled with uncertainty and rage. His script contribution to Michelangelo Antonioni's underrated Zabriskie Point further fanned the hope that Shepard was part of the absurdist wave ushering existentialism to a more ambitious socio-political level.
The plays chronologically preceding Mad Cat's current choice are from this thrilling no man's land of philosophical theater. Icarus's Mother, Red Cross,and Chicago, which earned Shepard an Obie Award, managed to mix erotic complexities with the shadow of nuclear holocaust, deliver a weird little treatise on how to get rid of crabs with sheep dip, deconstruct absurdist banter through an American prism, and all the while expose the post-apocalyptic nakedness of the human condition. Suicide in B-flat opened with the chalk outline of a dead body awkwardly fallen down and proceeded to build a terrifying metaphor from that dreamlike image.
Shepard in his youth stood for the fire and passion of underground theater about to be discovered and perhaps co-opted by the world at large. By the time Shepard left New York for London in 1971, his apprenticeship seemed complete. True, his subsequent return to the United States and his move to San Francisco's Magic Theater in the late Seventies curiously signaled a shift toward better-built plays with smaller concerns. But his London period remains a fascinating fork in the road, illustrated both in major pieces like The Tooth of the Crime and in decidedly minor but interesting ones like Action. In other words, a good production of Action would be a fine idea both for the sheer rediscovery of it and for what it might tell us about a playwright we think we know.
No such luck. Never mind that the piece by itself is simply not enough of a full theatrical meal; it ought to be at least a tasty snack. It would work better alongside something else -- say, Shepard's own Icarus's Mother or Beckett's Not I. It's just that Mad Cat has not come up with a cogent ensemble, and that Shepard's text seems hopelessly at sea with its own ambitions, and that his characters come off as Beckettian glosses caught in a Pinter pause.
The action is simple. There is a crisis outside, it is winter, food is in short supply. Tei's set design works on first impression, what with its big Christmas tree and bigger dining table crowned by hanging laundry, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia if not quite of impending threat. The slow tree-trimming pantomime set to basic NPR guitar sounds adds a touch of melancholy to the prologue. Early in the play, at the line "I'm looking forward to my life," the sadness is real.
Then comes trouble. What should be shocking episodes of sudden violence with chairs repeatedly broken against the floor -- and the script makes much of the fact that there is only one chair left at one point -- seems just plain silly when the folding metal chairs Tei uses are clearly not broken. Much is made of sweeping the floor when there is nothing to sweep, this in a staging otherwise intent on naturalism in close quarters, down to the smelly fish. And so with the line readings, which never rise to the level of ensemble acting. Azurdia's performance feels like a first reading, but at least she knows how to hold a fork and knife. Cronan, who doesn't, makes little of her underwritten role as a friend standing by. The chair-throwing Durkin recites his lines as if they bear no relation to any dramatic fabric. Only Fabregat seems comfortable in both Shepard's text and this actor's own skin, but he cannot save the piece alone.
Loud screaming and ersatz violence aside, this Action is static and more than a little boring. It argues forcefully that perhaps we all spoke too soon when we hailed Shepard as the quintessentially American playwright of our time. That line of succession actually seems to have gone straight from Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams to Edward Albee and Tony Kushner. This staging of Action seems to prove that Shepard, despite his success, has been a distraction along the way.
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