For many theater- and Sam Shepard-lovers (check and check), what stays with them in Fool for Love is the electric shock of attraction and danger flying between Eddie and May, our two central characters on the fast track to… well, where?
For me, though, it’s a lighter, slyer moment that I remember. An Old Man, largely observing from the sidelines, suddenly enters the action, and points:
The Old Man: Take a look at that picture on the wall over there. Ya’ see it?… Barbara Mandrell. You heard a’ her?
The Old Man: Well, would you believe me if I told ya’ I was married to her?
The Old Man: Well, see now that’s the difference right there. That’s realism. I am actually married to Barbara Mandrell in my mind.
That’s Shepard in a nutshell. There is, of course, the playful wink at defining “realism,” a genre the uncategorizable playwright embraces and rejects. But I’m even more beguiled by the imagery of Barbara Mandrell, a pretty blond singer who around the time of this play was enjoying a period of country-pop crossover fame via television and records.
For me, Mandrell embodies a central Shepard crossroad: the once Wild West, lately absorbed into bland suburbia; a place where cowboys and -girls are increasingly tamed. Fool for Love premiered in 1983, but today, the resonance of this moment is even more ironic: I doubt anyone under thirty reading this would have any idea who she is. With apologies to Mandrell herself, who is still with us, in the past forty years, she’s moved from icon to kitsch artifact.
In Fool for Love, that sprawling yet largely empty Western-to-suburban landscape takes the form of a dingy motel room, in and around which the combustible pairing of May and Eddie come together and pull apart, like particles in an accelerator.
Much of the play’s narrative—its timeline; who the characters are, exactly (including the Old Man and Martin, May’s boyfriend), and what their relationships are; what has already happened and likely will happen—is shrouded in ambiguity. And it should be. It’s the difficult job for director, designers, and actors to make this situation “real,” while at the same time keeping Shepard’s secrets.
I’m going to do my bit by saying little more about that plot than that, except to point out what Shepard fans will already know: Fool for Love is famous for its sense of dangerous, intimate game-playing.
In theory, that intimacy ought to be ideally served by EgoPo’s space. The stage of their home theater at the Latvian Society has rarely felt so compressed, with the audience nearly intruding on the action. It was also a good idea to give Fool for Love to a female director (by the way, I reject the notion that Shepard’s work is testosterone-fueled and marginalizes women—it’s far more complex than that), and Brenna Geffers has done some fascinating re-imaginings, including Machinal for EgoPo.
The results don’t always pay off. I wish that Geffers and her actors had taken advantage of the tight confines to really pare the action down to its essence. Even a whisper could be heard in this space, but instead the piece feels very much staged—particularly Jered McLenigan (Eddie), whose awkward performance seems to veer across a variety of line readings calculated to land with maximum effect, and often inappropriately smirky. Two particular moments fail to land: the moment a gun arrives on stage, and a repeating sequence of lariat tricks. Both should unnerve the audience; here, they get smiles. The closeness also robs the Old Man character of some of his ambiguity—ideally, I think the viewer should wonder whether’s he’s actually in the scene or not.
Joe Canuso’s Old Man is good but a little too genial and cleaned-up—a quality that also detracts from Steven Wright’s immensely likeable turn as Martin. Julianna Zinkel (May) fares best, her sexuality seeming almost unconscious. But the electric current that needs to run through Fool for Love is curiously low-voltage. The surprise for me in Geffers’ direction is that there are, actually, no surprises. This, for better or for worse, feels like textbook Shepard.
One more production awaits us in EgoPo’s three-play season that’s thematically focused on the great playwright’s work: Curse of the Starving Class, which remains my personal favorite, and will be directed here by the company’s Artistic Director, Lane Savadove. Despite my reservations about the first two shows (including Buried Child, reviewed here), I feel enormously grateful to EgoPo. As well as I know these plays, the opportunity to see these works together has made me understand thematic connections I’ve not understood before. Shepard is a gift that keeps on giving. EgoPo is, too.
Fool for Love plays through February 23. For more information, visit the EgoPo Classic Theater website.
Categories: Criticism, Philadelphia, Theater
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