A Young Playwright on Sam Shepard

shepard

Source: bbc.com

It might be the middle of the Minnesota Fringe Festival here in the Twin Cities but I want – no, need – to take a moment to talk about Sam Shepard. I’m still reeling from his death and feeling all the levels of loss at once. Out of the playwrights we’ve lost since I’ve been working in theater, his death has hit me the hardest because he is one of the writers I consider a fundamental influence, both in my repertoire and in my own writing.

I found uncanny solace in his plays and they taught me about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, anger, fear, love, hope, hopelessness, and how to make an audience/reader feel uncomfortable and disturbed. Navigating struggles between community and feeling alone, Shepard has a style and perspective on the world that’s all his own. His dialogue is fast, sharp, harsh, painfully emotional, and, at times, detached and confused. Characters speak across each other and ignore what the other says. Communication falls apart even while lines are still being uttered. When I first discovered his plays, it was like hearing punk music after hearing soft rock and pop all your life.

It’s hard to put into words what it means to lose someone so important to you that you’ve never met, which I why I’m so grateful for the outpouring of articles out there. There’s of course the gorgeous, heartbreaking piece by Patti Smith  and this article by John Leland (which has some great highlights like Shepard worked with Charles Mingus Jr and brought Nina Simone ice). These illuminate Shepard as a complex, brilliant guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time and wasn’t afraid to try something different. This New Yorker piece describes his work and presence wonderfully:

To the downtown New York theatre scene, he brought news of the West, of myth and music. He didn’t conform to the manners of the day; he’d lived a life outside the classroom and conventional book-learning. He was rogue energy with rock riffs. In his coded stories of family abuse and addiction, he brought to the stage a different idiom and a druggy, surreal lens. He also had the pulse of youth culture. He understood the despair behind the protean transformations that the culture was undergoing—the mutations of psychic and physical shape that were necessary for Americans to survive the oppression of a nation at war, both at home and abroad. Martians, cowboys and Indians, and rock legends peopled Shepard’s fantasies. He put that rage and rebellion onstage.

And then there’s this video with Shepard himself talking about his work, not wanting to deal family and how he noticed he was avoiding it in his work – thus making himself focus on it. Some people dislike Shepard for his “testosterone mania” (which I’ve always taken as a critique of hypermasculinity in society, or at least an examination of the dangers of it) and the way he writes women. One person in the video comments that Shepard may not understand women. And in the Leland piece, Mingus says “Some people are one-woman men. And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.” Shepard’s personal life colors his plays. He’s human, trying to figure out this weird world like the rest of us, examining the misunderstandings he holds and the different ways of being that exist for him and others. The bold colors that characterized his life find their way onto the page and shine in vivid hues, some beautiful, some frightening. Shepard is complicated, and messy, and visceral, and so, so wonderfully flaw-fully human. I’m grateful that I got to be in this world the same time as this great writer and that his plays will live on well after he’s gone. And that somewhere, he’s probably super pissed off that I’m rhapsodizing about it. But I wouldn’t be the playwright, the theater advocate, the person I am without knowing his plays. His work means a lot to me and I’m heartbroken in a way I haven’t been since Prince’s death. When you grow up, only knowing playwrights such as Shakespeare or maybe Arthur Miller, it rocks your world when you discover writers like Shepard. And I hope that we keep on rocking it and keep making plays that shake up the world and keep this “rogue energy” alive.

So, Sam Shepard, one last thing: thank you.

Idiot’s Delight

IdiotsDelight_hotel-80_lo

Source: girlfridayproductions.org

I’m several weeks late getting this posted, having attended the show in mid-July, but I’d rather get it posted late than not at all because this show was too good to not talk about.

In the midst of juggling a lot of things this summer, my attention has fallen to news reporting during World War II, due to research I’m doing as the literary intern for Watch on the Rhine. I’ve been drowning in details about the lack of focus and lack of reporting on the Holocaust. Which might be why Idiot’s Delight hit such a powerful chord with me. To be honest, it would have packed a punch, regardless. It’s that kind of show.

On the cusp of war breaking out, American showman Harry Van (John Middleton) and his three singing stars (Bonni Allen, Karissa Lade, and Becca Hart) find themselves at a hotel in the Italian Alps, full of guests who don’t quite know what’s around the corner. A pair of honeymooners (Gabriel Murphy and Adelin Phelps) are looking to enjoying a snow-filled escape, Dr. Waldersee (Karen Wiese-Thompson) just wants to get out of the hotel so she can continue her research to cure cancer, and why the mysterious Russian Irene (Stacia Rice) is there is anyone’s guess but it has something to do with tycoon Achille Weber (David Coral), a weapon’s manufacturer who doesn’t fear the possibility of war. The hotel staff (David Beukema, Sam Landman, Kirby Bennett, and Kevin Dutcher) try to juggle their needs while outspoken anti-fascist Quillery (Kory LaQuess Pullam) speaks out against the soldiers (Eric Knutson, Mike Swan, and C. Ryan Shipley) at the nearby air force base who already know what lies ahead for Italy. While 1930s tunes fills the air of the hotel, Quillery warns of the coming storm – until it suddenly swallows the hotel entirely.

This cast is absolutely mesmerizing. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I’ve seen a cast of this size and this caliber on stage. There’s exquisite costuming by Kathy Kohl, lush scene design by Michael Hoover, poignant light and sound by Dietrich Poppen and Anita Kelling, stellar props design by the ever-wonderful Abbee Warmboe, and lovely music direction and choreography by Kevin Dutcher and C. Ryan Shipley. There’s also a lot of accents – a lot of accents – 1930s American, Italian, Italian as spoken by an Austrian, Russian. The actors do a marvelous job, with the help of rock star dialect coach Lucinda Holshue.

I don’t think I have to explain why this play hits a particular note with current events. With Hannah Arendt’s books suddenly becoming best-sellers and anti-semitic organizations gaining not just attention but power, it’s a frighting place to find oneself. What this play does particularly well is the juxtaposition of terrible fear and large-scale evil along with the struggle of wanting to live your every day life. Harry’s singers – Shirley, Beulah, and Bebe – entertain Italian soldiers who moments later drag off Quillery for verbally attacking them. The tender honeymooners want to continue their escape but know they can’t with the death and destruction that’s happening around them. Beautiful complicated Irene will do what it takes to survive but ultimately becomes the pawn in Achille’s more masterful scheme. Rice shines as the complicated Irene, as does Pullam as Quillery, whose passion comes across not just in the political movement of 30s but of today. Middleton is dynamic and mesmerizing as always and Wiese-Thompson is especially incredible as the complicated doctor who does not want to forsake her research but will let it go if it means being patriotic to her homeland of Germany. And one of my favorite moments in the show (as well as one of the saddest) came from Sam Landman’s character Dumpsty, who speaks Italian but states that he learned the language after what was once part of Austria became part of Italy after World War I. Towards the end of the play, Dumpsty returns to his war uniform of the past to go fight for Italy. “Who will feed your family?” he is asked. He replies cheerfully, “The fascisti will feed them. They have promised to feed all of the families of soldiers.” I could almost hear my heart break at this line. If there’s anything the fascists definitely failed to do, it was feed people.

I only wish I had seen this show earlier in the run so that I could have recommended it because it was so wonderful. Beautiful and cheerful and heartbreaking and frightening all at once. It does all the things that makes theater great while also sending out an important message – and not letting us get away with an ending that makes us feel like everything will be alright.

Idiot’s Delight was written by Robert E. Sherwood and directed by Craig Johnson. It played June 29- July 23 at Park Square Theatre’s Andy Boss Stage.