Sunday, October 06, 2013

Buried Child

Buried Child. By Sam Shepard, directed by Loretta Greco. San Francisco: The Magic Theater; seen September 27, 2013.
Eastside Road, October 6, 2013—
WE CLOSED OUT last week's three-play marathon in a venue we haven't visited for years, the veteran Magic Theater in San Francisco's Fort Mason. John Lion founded the company in 1967, according to the Wikipedia article I'm consulting, in the old Steppenwolf bar down on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. I remember seeing at least one of Michael McClure's "Gargoyle Cartoon" there, but Lion moved the company to San Francisco in the early 1970s, finally settling in the present location in the middle of that decade.

McClure was a (or the ) resident artist at the Magic for eleven years, giving the company a unique blend of poetry, sometimes violent energy, and what I think of as an anti-intellectual philosophy. I have often wished for an opportunity to study a number of his plays, in performance of course, in a single season, but he seems to have fallen out of favor locally, and I make do with vague memories of The Blossom, or Billy the Kid; The Beard; the Gargoyle Cartoons of course; Gorf; and Josephine The Mouse Singer.

At about the time the Magic moved into its current Fort Mason digs, the already notable American playwright Sam Shepard succeeded McClure in residence. Both men were born in the midwest; both were Californians by the time they were twenty or so; both have keen ears for the vernacular and a healthy respect for the meat of human experience as well as the brain. They make a fascinating pair; come to think of it, a McClure-Shepard festival would be another fascinating experience.

(Wouldn't it be marvelous if the Bay Area's rich theater community — rich in all but money, alas — could join forces to mount such events!)

I think we have seen only one other Shepard play: Fool for Love, which was splendidly performed in May 2012 by the community Main Stage West in Sebastopol and subsequently repeated at the Imaginists in Santa Rosa. Fool for Love premiered at the Magic in 1983; Buried Child had appeared five years earlier and is, to my mind, a less successful piece — because less resolved, a result of its greater complexity and ambition.

Some of the play's irresoluteness may be the result of its writing. Shepard revised the script for its 1995 revival in Chicago, and Robert Hurwitt has stated the Magic Theater production used that revision; but the Magic itself calls this a "Legacy Revival" celebrating the playwright's 70th birthday (November 5) and Magic's own role in premiering so much of his work. I haven't read the play; I don't know if there is, or can be, a definitive state of the script.

In any case we saw Buried Child in the context of two other plays, as the previous two posts here indicate, and that context had much to do, I think, with the powerful immediacy of Shepard's script even in what seemed to me an unevenly directed production. Rod Gnapp was compelling as Dodge, the surly, bitter, authoritative, dying father of a mythically dysfunctional farm family somewhere in the American heartland. But his presence was so strong, so central to the production, that other members of the cast, capable as they were, too often moved on the margins.

Shepard invites the problem. Halie, Dodge's wife (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), enters through several minutes of lines spoken offstage. Bradley (Patrick Kelly Jones), the amputee son, spends much of his time lying on the couch, arm across his face. Tilden (James Wagner), the other son, makes his most effective contributions to the drama offstage.

By contrast, Vince (Patrick Alparone), Dodge's errant grandson, making an unforseen visit with his girl friend Shelly (Elaina Garrity), hold the center of the stage, insisting on a present reality, forcing it into the decaying monochrome of this household of suppressed emotion.

Jane Ann Crum's program notes on the play enlarge on the nature of the theatrical reality in Shepard's construct:
One of the primary differences in Shepherd's [sic] dramaturgy is what could be called tears in the fabric of reality.
Other critics have commented on the Shepard esthetic as being an expression of Postmodernism: but in fact Buried Child seems to me to be a perfectly logical and foreseeable continuation of the curve of realistic drama from Ibsen and Shaw through O'Neill and Williams to Shepard and Stoppard. Yes, there are rents and tears in the fabric of reality; we have come to find these flaws more real than the imagined and manufactured reality of the fabric, which maintains its integrity only when external realities are ignored.

The arresting moments in Shepard recall those in Shakespeare, who is so fascinated by the irrational events which like Epicurus's swerves define, distort, and impel the forces and trajectories we humans so desperately want to be rational and orderly. It was profoundly shocking to be confronted with the buried child of Shepard's play, a day after having dealt with Leontes' figurative burial of his own.

Too, Vince and Shelly — quite strongly performed here — recalled Clyde and Bonnie, seen only two days before, living on a disorienting cusp of inner and external realities, torn between context and the moment. (They also recall May and Eddie, if Fool for Love. As there are only so many plots — seven, many pretend — so there are probably only a small number of characters.)

One thing is clear to me, after these three nights of theater: Shepard's work, necessarily imperfect though it may be on the stage where it is consigned to its public moment, is deep with undertones and rich in scope, a significant development in American literature and world stage.

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