My second production (of four) in September was Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love at Bethesda, Maryland’s, Round House Theatre. In town for a visit with my mother, I treated her to a performance of the intermissionless, 70-minute one-act drama on Thursday evening, 18 September. The production, directed by Round House artistic director Ryan Rilette at the company’s East-West Highway main stage (there’s another theater in Silver Spring), opened on 3 September and closed on 5 October, after being extended from a scheduled 27 September closing.
Fool is also my second play in a row set in a motel room. But A. R. Gurney’s 1977 Wayside Motor Inn room near Boston (as designed by Albert Lieberman) doesn’t measure up in seedy barrenness to Shepard’s Desert Motel room somewhere in the Mojave (from Meghan Raham). But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here.
The première of Fool for Love, directed by the playwright and starring Ed Harris and Kathy Baker, opened at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco on 8 February 1983. It had its New York City début at the Circle Repertory Theatre on 26 May 1983 with the same cast before transferring to Off-Broadway’s Douglas Fairbanks Theatre on Theatre Row on 27 November. It won two 1984 Obie Awards for Shepard’s direction and for the Best New American Play. (Harris, Baker, and Will Paton also won Obies for their performances.) Fool for Love was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984, the same year the London première at the National Theatre opened; it moved to the Lyric Theatre in 1985. The play was revived at the Apollo Theatre in London in 2006 and again at Riverside Studios in London in 2010. A restaging with Sam Rockwell and 2012 Tony Award-winner Nina Arianda at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts, premièred on 24 July 2014. A 1985 film version of Fool for Love, starring Shepard himself (who also wrote the screenplay from his stage script) opposite Kim Basinger and featuring Harry Dean Stanton and Randy Quaid in the other roles from the play, was directed by Robert Altman.
The Round House Theatre started in 1970 as Street ’70, a program of Maryland’s Montgomery County Department of Recreation. The theater moved into a circular former elementary school building in Silver Spring in 1977, and took the name Round House Theatre. In 1982, the Round House Theatre became a nonprofit corporation; separated from the Department of Recreation in 1993 to become an independent, professional theater; and in 2005, moved to its present theaters, with the 400-seat main stage in Bethesda and an experimental stage in Silver Spring, where the troupe also houses its educational programs. The Round House has earned 140 nominations for Helen Hayes Awards, the Capital-area recognition of excellence in theater, and won 27. The company won the Hayes award for resident play (as distinct from touring shows) four times and the 2003 Charles MacArthur Award for new plays for the world premiere of Shakespeare, Moses, and Joe Papp by Ernie Joselovitz. Rilette, stage director of Fool for Love, has been Producing Artistic Director of the troupe since August 2012.
Shepard, who’ll be 71 in November, was born in Illinois but moved from military base to military base with his bomber-pilot father until the family settled in Los Angeles County, California, where Shepard graduated from high school and worked on a ranch as a teenager. He dropped out of college to join a touring theater troupe and then came to New York City in 1963, soon becoming involved in the nascent Off-Off-Broadway movement. He wrote plays for all the new OOB theaters like Caffe Cino and Cafe La Mama, but he became most identified with Ralph Cook’s Theatre Genesis, which was an arm of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, which produced his stage début, the one-act plays Cowboy and Rock Garden on a double bill, in 1964. (I posted a history of the Off-Off-Broadway theater scene in the Greenwich Village of the 1960s on 12 and 15 December 2011.) Between 1966 and 1968, Shepard won six Obie Awards, the Village Voice’s recognition of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater that was intended to be a counterweight to the commercial theater honored by the Tonys. In 1965, Elenore Lester of the New York Times described Shepard as “the generally acknowledged ‘genius’ of the OOB circuit.” By 1968, Shepard was also writing successful screenplays, such as Me and My Brother (1968) and Zabriskie Point (1970, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni). In 1971, the playwright moved with his family to London, and several of his plays premièred there. Returning to the U.S. in 1974, the writer bought a ranch in Mill Valley in Marin County, California, where he continued to write plays.
In 1975, Shepard was named playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, just 14 miles north of Mill Valley across the Golden Gate Bridge; many of Shepard’s plays premièred there, including Buried Child (1978), Curse of the Starving Class (1978), and True West (1980), as well as Fool for Love. In 1978, he was cast as The Farmer in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, launching Shepard’s film-acting career in earnest. His role as test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff in 1983 earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. In 1985, he wrote the screenplay for Altman’s film adaptation of Fool for Love and he took the lead part of Eddie himself. At the same time, Shepard’s play A Lie of the Mind, which the playwright directed, was running Off-Broadway at the Promenade Theatre with a cast including Harvey Keitel, Geraldine Page, Will Patton, Amanda Plummer, and Aidan Quinn, winning a 1986 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play, and a Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. All this notoriety landed the playwright and actor on the cover of Newsweek on 11 November 1985, under the headline “True West.” The magazine dubbed him “Leading Man, Playwright, Maverick.”
Shepard’s written over 50 plays so far (I’ll be seeing the U.S. première of his latest, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), at New York City’s Signature Theatre in December.) His Buried Child won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters and named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, both in 1986; and he was voted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994. Shepard’s taught playwriting and related subjects in classes, workshops, and seminars in colleges, universities, festivals, and theaters around the country, and he’s written music (“Brownsville Girl” with Bob Dylan, 1986) and performed with musical groups (banjo on Patti Smith’s cover of the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the album Twelve, 2007). Shepard named Ralph Cook, the founder and director of the seminal OOB Genesis Theatre, as a formative influence, but he acknowledges Joseph Chaikin, member of the Living Theatre and founder of the Open Theatre, as a mentor. (The two theater giants collaborated on 1978’s Tongues and 1979’s Savage/Love, two pieces for voice and percussion which premièred, respectively, at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre and Eureka Theatre with Chaikin on stage and Shepard at the drums.) The dramatist was also influenced early in his theatrical life by the writing of Absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett, jazz, and Abstract Expressionist painting.
Fascinated with the myth of the vanishing West and nonconformist perspectives on American culture, Shepard attempts in his plays to deconstruct the American Dream, “exposing the lies and delusions we live under.” His writing frequently employs symbolism and non-linear storytelling incorporating an inventive use of spare, evocative language. (Along with Absurdism, there’s more than a touch of Surrealism in Shepard’s scripts as well. Think of Beckett designed by Salvador Dalí.) He combines ironic humor with outrageous satire. His plays are often peopled by drifters, fading rock stars, drunks, loners, and others subsisting on the edges of society and are frequently set in a vague, nonspecific nowhere, usually in some unspecified Western landscape. As literary scholar Sherrill Grace warned:
However straightforward they may seem at first, however careful Shepard may be about realistic details or with characters who seem very familiar, sooner or later an audience is forced to abandon the comfortable realm of logic, clarity, predictability, and familiarity for an illogical realm of intense emotion, violent unpredictability and complex symbolic, inner states.
“After years of exploring the myths that sustain us as Americans,” wrote Ryan Rilette, “Shepard turned his attention to personal myth, the stories that serve as the foundation of our families and relationships,” and many of his plays depict deeply troubled families. (Three plays—Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and True West—are often dubbed the dramatist’s “Family Trilogy,” which some critics extend into a quintet with Fool and 1985’s A Lie of the Mind.) In these plays, Round House dramaturg Brent Stansell noted, “the family is a source of tremendous pain.” Among his more constant themes are the conflict between illusion and reality, the fluidity of time and identity, and the vagaries of memory, all of which figure in Fool.
Fool for Love is one of Shepard’s best-known plays, along with True West, Curse of the Starving Class, and the Pulitzer-winning Buried Child. According to the director, “It’s a piece that lives on the dividing line between love and hate, between attraction and repulsion, and between fantasy and reality.” The fools in the play are Eddie (Thomas Keegan) and May (Katie deBuys), a pair of sometime lovers, who may be more to one another than even that but are on the outs at present. May’s hiding out in a run-down Mojave Desert motel. When the lights come up on the sliver of the depressing, bare room, May is sitting on the end of her bed, head bowed, determinedly silent as Eddie, her friend since high school and former boyfriend, is sitting across from her trying to get her to respond as he attempts to convince her to take him back. May rejects Eddie but still won’t let him leave, leading to what Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post described as “75 minutes of ‘Git out!’ and ‘Don’t go!.’” Outside the motel room, in a kind of southwestern “blasted heath” or no-man’s land sits the Old Man (Marty Lodge) in a rocking chair over on stage left, silently at first, sucking on what looks like a styrofoam cup of coffee. Though the fourth wall of the motel room is open, the impression is that the Old Man isn’t actually present in the same reality as Eddie and May, but soon Shepard begins to play with this perception.
May, who’s angry at Eddie for, among other things, an affair she accuses him of having with a wealthy woman she only identifies as “the countess,” tells him she’s waiting to be picked up for a date with a man named Martin. This information gets Eddie’s dander up and we begin to see the violent streak in his nature when he returns to his truck, first, for his rope—he’s a rodeo cowboy who’s beginning to feel his age—and practices lassoing the furniture. Soon, he also retrieves his rifle and field strips it, briefly holding the barrel between his legs in what has to be a symbolic gesture, and cleans and reassembles it. Suddenly, a big, black Mercedes limo cruises through the parking lot outside—we see only its headlinghts—terrifying Eddie and enraging May as the vehicle rams the cowboy’s truck and the occupant, presumably the countess, shoots out his windshield as it speeds off.
When Martin (director Rilette, replacing Tim Getman) arrives, a mousy young man who’s cowed by Eddie’s bluster and implicitly threatening nature, Eddie, by now buzzed on tequila, starts to tell the newcomer about his relationship to May and how they came to know each other. Though May tries to contradict Eddie’s version of the facts, we learn a few secrets—well, possible secrets, since the real truth may not be in evidence—including that the Old Man is the father of both lovers—they’re half-siblings, though they didn’t know that until after they’d begun to “fool around” in high school. The Old Man has his own take on the whole story and joins in the account, eventually stepping up into the motel room. I won’t provide the details of this twisty, perhaps-not-all-true story—it would detract too much from the play’s impact if anyone went in knowing my take on it, since viewers will work out their own impressions based on the way they hear the tale. (I will add that Shepard has acknowledged that some of what the Old Man recounts is drawn directly from conversations the playwright had with his estranged, alcoholic father.) Like most of Shepard’s plays, Fool focuses on the effect of the action more than on the narrative, and in the end, there’s no concrete resolution as Eddie and May don’t reconcile, the Old Man is losing himself in his own delusions, and Martin is left on stage as a confused observer.
Fool for Love examines two of Shepard’s principal ideas: illusion versus reality and memory. As for the first theme, Rilette believes that the dramatist “recognized that reality is subjective, based on our personal experience, and exploited that to great theatrical effect, challenging . . . an audience to decide which stories to believe.” The playwright, for example, gives us the Old Man sitting outside the motel room. Is he real? Is he part of the imagination of either Eddie or May? Is he perhaps a ghost from the past? When Eddie leans out of the motel room set and pours tequila into the Old Man’s cup, Shepard entirely blurs the line between the real and the imaginary; and when the Old Man enters the room, which he does by walking through the fourth wall, not coming in through a door in the set, the separation between the two perceptions is wiped out—but still ambiguous. When May accuses Eddie of being involved with the countess, it sounds an awful lot like the delusion of an obsessed mind—but then the unseen Mercedes appears and Eddie reacts in real fear. We never see the countess—is she real or just a powerful illusion? Further, are the stories Eddie and May tell Martin true? Partly true? Made up? We never really learn. All this is enhanced, as far as I was concerned, by the Edward Hopper-like look of the motel room set, with faded wall colors, no decoration of any kind, and a light source that’s not evident (the stark white lighting is designed by Daniel MacLean Wagner). (If it weren’t for the cityscape out the window, the room in Hopper’s Morning Sun could be May’s room at the Desert Motel.) In the end, it’s the individual viewer who decides what’s real and what’s illusionary; Shepard doesn’t give many hints.
Eddie’s whole life is a struggle between the real and the imaginary. He’s hung up on the image of the cowboy and the way of the mythical West. But they don’t really exit. Except in a rodeo, a form of entertainment, cowboy lore is illusionary. And Eddie’s only steps away from being outclassed even there by younger rodeo performers. May’s only a few steps behind him, though. She believes in the myth of romance and a quiet life but can’t make the break from Eddie and his mercurial and violent nature. She’s dating a regular guy, a considerate and thoughtful man—but she lives in a seedy motel and is on the run from her past. How does that work?
If any of what transpires in Fool is true, how come Eddie, May, and the Old Man remember the details so differently? Shepard’s point seems to be that one person’s memories of an event in the past can vary from another’s depending on each person’s perspective. In Fool, Eddie and May each remember the same occasions in completely different ways, and then the Old Man chimes to “set the record straight” about what happened with his own version of the specifics. None of the characters will relinquish his or her truth; indeed, they all fight to prove they’re right and the others are wrong. Can all three versions of Eddie’s and May’s childhoods be accurate? Are any of the characters lying? Deluding themselves? Are all the perspectives correct depending on where you stood when everything happened? It’s a sort of Rashomon of the mind. I might feel, for example, that the Old Man (real or not) is self-delusional, but that’s my perception. Another viewer could very well feel differently. We can’t know for sure.
Further, the characters in Fool have no secure grasp of time or even their identities. Their pasts keep invading their presents to subvert their futures and we can’t ever be sure who any of them really are from moment to moment. May, for example, alternates almost every minute between rejecting Eddie and their former relationship and pulling him back to her needily. We never know where anyone stands—and neither do they.
I’ve seen maybe half a dozen Shepard plays, including Heartless at STC in August 2012 (reported on ROT on 10 September 2012), my last encounter. Despite his renown and his popularity with both audiences and theaters, I’ve never taken to him. (According to Round House artistic director Rilette, Shepard “was the second most produced American playwright after Tennessee Williams” back in the 1980s.) I have to report that seeing Fool for Love hasn’t changed my response to his work. Though the performances were fine, including substitute Rilette’s Martin, I wasn’t engaged by the play, even for its brief 70-minute running time (my timing was somewhat different from the Post’s Pressley’s). The emotional, psychological, and narrative flip-flops got too much for me pretty quickly even as I admired the actors for handling them so smoothly and confidently.
As I said essentially of Heartless, one of my biggest difficulties with Fool is that it deliberately keeps secrets. Readers who know me now know that I have problems with Harold Pinter because of this; but Pinter was a genius at the tactic and was better at it than anyone else, including Shepard. (We’ll see that I have this same disagreement with Amy Herzog when I post my report on Belleville in a few days.) Nevertheless, it annoys me because it makes me feel manipulated and if I’m being annoyed, then I’m not really getting into the play. So I sat through the entire first scenes of Fool wondering what was going on and why Shepard was keeping secrets from me just because he wanted to.
I likened the set to a Hopper painting (Edward, not Dennis), though I have no idea if designer Raham (who also designed the nicely appropriate costumes) was in any way influenced or inspired by that artist’s eerie, barren scenes. Either way, of course, it was apt and unpleasantly evocative—the atmosphere I imagine Shepard wanted. The set was also raked so that nothing was quite plumb and it seemed as if everything and everyone might come rolling down into the auditorium at any moment. One really interesting element of the set and technical production (I don’t actually know what part of the production team was responsible for this effect) was the sound the set seemed to make. Every time a door slammed, a foot was stomped, something (like a rifle butt) smacked the floor, or a face was slapped (but I may have imagined that one), it echoed through the theater. This effect adds to the ominous atmosphere of the whole play, as if the motel room and its immediate surroundings are afloat in a reality bubble (like something in a sci-fi movie—speaking of Star Trek Motel, which I mentioned in my Wayside Motor Inn report on 1 October).
However this is accomplished, sound designer Eric Shimelonis certainly gets some of the credit, as he does for the music that led into and out of the performance. The pre-show music, a kind of eerie techno moan— described on Shimelonis’s website as “atmospheric pedal steel lines performed by the talented Jamie Linder” (and I have no way of disputing or corroborating that because I don’t know what it means!)—was actually unpleasant, but as we sat looking at the empty set and watching the lighted letters of “Motel” on the big outdoor sign flicker and blink, it set up an expectation of both a weird and ominous piece of the world. (The exit music was a country-and-western ballad, which seemed more literally appropriate, but less evocative.)
As the lovers, deBuys and Keegan, the two actors director Rilette asserted were his impetus for producing Fool, a play he’d wanted to do for years, this season at Round House, had their work cut out for them (if you’ll pardon the cliché): they had to change emotional and psychological tacks on a dime, allow the control to shift back and forth instantly, and reach for connections to out-of-the-blue information and events that may or may not even be true. (As actors, I assume deBuys and Keegan decided for themselves what’s true and what’s not—but that’s their business, not necessarily ours. Or Shepard’s.) If Rilette toned down the overt violence of Fool from the original New York production, as Pressley asserted, Eddie’s implied threats and May’s sometime verbal aggression at least hinted at a physical dimension to their on-again-off-again relationship. I can’t say that if the Round House production included more actual physical confrontation (the fight choreographer was Casey Kaleba, who did an excellent job with the violence that was staged), it might have pulled me in to the play more. Nonetheless, Keegan and deBuys, who’s relatively petite beside her stage lover, unquestionably implied a wildness and untamed nature, emotionally raw and on edge, even if it was kept in check for these particular 70 minutes.
Marty Lodge, in his fortieth appearance on a Round House stage, had all the attributes of a Shepard old-timer, the shadow of the mythical cowboy. He was gruff, craggy, solitary, weary, self-absorbed, blunt—also controlled and deliberate—a sort of twisted prairie sage. Lodge’s Old Man, whether you believe him or not, was the glue that held this tenuous tale together in the end—maybe a magnet is a better analogy, since he was uninvolved at first and the chaotic relationship between Eddie and May (and then among Eddie, May, and Martin) threatens to spin apart until the Old Man inserts himself and Lodge essentially took control and orchestrated the story-telling. He’s not a likeable character, but he’s commanding and it helped explain some of what became of both Eddie and May that ended them up the way they are. (On the other hand, Martin grew up without the specter of such a figure so he may not be as strong as Eddie, but he’s a mite nicer—which isn’t necessarily an asset in Shepard’s world.)
The Martin I saw, played by director Rilette, was a bit of a cypher. I suspect that the part’s written that way, though the original actor seems to have been a tad younger and may have been more forceful in the role (only because I imagine he’d had more rehearsal and performances under his belt—though I don’t actually know that). Rilette’s Martin was tentative and deferential, not just to the bullying Eddie, who belittles Martin, but to May as well—much to Eddie’s dismay. It made him a little nebbishy, and I wonder if another actor might have offered a stronger persona that might have at least suggested a competition for Eddie. On the other hand, Rilette’s softer Martin succeeded in suggesting that May has chosen him as a polar opposite to Eddie both as a better alternative and as a dig at her ex. (It might be safe to assume that actor Rilette, who has some on-stage credits, followed the same acting guidance director Rilette gave his predecessor.)
In the press, the reception for Round House’s Fool for Love was pretty good overall. The Washington Post’s Pressley called the production “a faded postcard” that “capably captured that vintage Sam Shepard desperation-at-the-edge-of-the-desert look” of the playwright’s “twisted cowboy romance.” Rilette’s direction “clearly gets the Shepard vernacular,” but “[t]he show seems oddly well-adjusted” and Pressley demurred when it came to the actors: “the performance doesn’t kick up much dust,” though “not for lack of ferocity in the acting.” “[T]he eddies of the conflict feel surprisingly shallow,” added the Post review-writer, because, he felt, “this ‘Fool’ generally tones down the business of May and Eddie wrangling and hurling each other into the walls.” Pressley suggested that “this production isn’t fully immersed in the messy depths and psychic tangles that Shepard was tearing at. . . . Rougher, more mysterious edges throughout would be welcome.”
On DC Theatre Scene, Richard Barry said, “Fool for Love peaks [sic] out from behind dusty blinds to explore the murk of male and female love as well a family history’s leviathan grip.” The production, Barry asserted, has “a deep effect on those participating and witnessing, both within the play and without.” David Siegel of DC Metro Theater Arts wrote that director Rilette’s “absorbing, sensually deep, measured take” on Fool for Love, “riveting in its hold even three decades after it was first produced,” was “[b]urnished to an earthy golden.” The production, wrote the DCMTA reviewer, starts the Round House season “with danger and striking vigor” and “will linger with you after leaving” the theater. Siegel concluded that the Round House’s Fool for Love is a “marvelous feast for those who like a strong brew.” “[C]ompared to Shepard’s earlier work, Fool for Love seems a little lifeless,” wrote Roger Catlin on MD Theatre Guide, despite “some fire between the central characters.” The MDTG reviewer then made his objections known in a list of (mostly piddling, IMHO) wishes: that deBuys “had a bit more twang in her delivery,” that “Keegan’s voice was a couple of octaves lower,” that “his clothes looked a little more dusty or worn.” In the end, Catlin asserted: “Shepard’s play may be showing its age more than the shabby motel room.”
On Talkin’ Broadway Regional News & Reviews, Susan Berlin declared: “Despite the efforts of the playwright, and director Ryan Rilette, to bring elemental grandeur to this setup, the production . . . is more effective as a showcase for two fine actors in the central roles.” On Broadway World: Washington, DC, Heather Nadolny called the Round House’s opening production “a resounding start” to the season and then warns, “This show is far from one you would want to see to feel better about life,” continuing that the Round House production “will bring out the raw emotions and make you glad you’re not in the action itself.” Nadolny concluded that “at the end of it, you will have seen a collaboration that truly works. You will have seen a piece of life, dark and visceral in front of you, that, despite its desperation, has a beauty all its own.”
As I said, this presentation of Fool for Love hasn’t substantially changed my response to Shepard’s plays. Let’s see what happens after I see A Particle of Dread in two months.