So-called Plays

The surreal Sam Shepard

Van Gogh no doubt trashed a few of his cocktail-napkin sketches. Beethoven probably had a riff or two he knew weren't worth the ink. And Sam Shepard has certainly had his share of gaseous emissions on the road to becoming America's hippest playwright. You can see two of them courtesy of the Garage Theatre Group.

"Shepard's Last Supper" (comprising two shorter plays, Killer's Headand Action) is a product of Shepard's transitional period in the early 1970s. That brief pause followed a frenzy of youthful creativity (30 New York productions by the time he hit 30, all of them bizarre, surreal, avant-garde theatrical experiments influenced by jazz, rock & roll, drugs, and poetry) and preceded the time when he would temper his imagination to produce the more mature plays of the late '70s and '80s. Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, True West and A Lie of the Mind still stand as the most riveting chronicles of the declining American family and the American West in theater.

First produced in 1975, Killer's Headand Action certainly hint at some of the coming brilliance, and they make gestures toward Shepard's favorite themes (identity, illusion, mortality, ontology), but they're hamstrung by long stretches of frankly uninteresting writing. Killer's Headis a 15-minute monologue delivered by Mazon (Nelson del Rosario), a man blindfolded and strapped to an electric chair. In the last moments of his life, this apparent killer (we never know much about Mazon or his crime) alights on those things that mattered most: breeding horses and driving pickups. Shepard is one of the finest monologue writers in contemporary theater, but you wouldn't know that from Mazon. Del Rosario does a fine job making us feel his character's looming end, and director Eric Hamme skillfully blends the technical elements to produce a crackling conclusion, but it's not enough to redeem this rather formless exercise.

Actionis more fleshed-out but still contains only about 10 minutes of great Shepard and 40 minutes of yellow, lumpy fat. Four characters find themselves in a post-apocalyptic world, passing the time in meaningless conversation about books and well water and deciding they're going to spend the rest of their lives confined to a chair.

There are sporadic eruptions of violence and momentary flashes of inspiration, when the characters seem poignantly aware they're uselessly frittering away their lives. But the overall emotional effect? A stifled yawn. That's not helped by Hilary Calvert's on-again, off-again direction. At times, it seems the actors are trying too hard to convince us of Shepard's seriousness; at others, they try too hard to make it seem a mere joke. It's a schizoid staging that works like a mushroom trip: moments of incandescent brilliance followed by tedious dips into nothing.

Still, half-baked Shepard is better than about 90 percent of what's produced on most stages, big and small. And that's the best thing to report about this production. In the evening's program, the Garage Theatre Group, a Long Beach-based company producing this show at Santa Ana's Empire Theater, includes an 11-and-a-half point manifesto. None of the points is particularly earth-shattering—that they all agree on rocky-road ice cream comes close —but one of the company's tenets is a commitment to the overlooked works of contemporary playwrights.

And based on that standard, "Shepard's Last Supper" is a wholly valid choice. Many times, a playwright's commercial or critical successes cast a pallor over smaller, less popular but just as interesting plays. That isn't the case with these two Shepard pieces; they're misfires from the barrel of one of the most powerful playwrights of the past 50 years.

But at the very least, companies that produce plays like these give the rest of us a chance to experience for ourselves the full range of a playwright's work. For someone like Shepard, that's especially important. Shepard has become so entangled in his myth—he's frequently characterized as a kind of rock & roll cowboy—that it's hard to find the real artist. You get a clearer fix when you see all of his work, including remnants like these. To quote another counterculture literary saint, William. S. Burroughs: the only real thing about a writer is what he has written, not his so-called life.

"Shepard's Last Supper" at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Sept. 27. $12-$15.
 
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