Fool for Love

By Sam Shepard
Directed by Jeffrey Mousseau
Coyote Theatre
In the BCA Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts --- through May 25

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" fits nicely into the BCA Theatre space. The playing area is equipped with the exposed trappings of black-box "experimental theatre", which is what this space has been for nearly thirty years -- ever since fertile sixties, when Shepard was the most compelling new voice in the Off-off-Broadway movement taking shape in such spaces. The BCA theatre is intimate where the three-quarter stage meets the audience, but behind and around the performing area is a mysterious dank and echoing subterranean vastness, the converted basement of a huge circular building constructed more than a hundred years ago to house a gigantic painted mural of The Battle of Gettysburg. All the mysterious depths of American mythology are there in the background, lending context to a new production of what is now an acknowledged modern classic.

Director Jeffrey Mousseau has mapped out his Coyote Theatre production's degree of stylization with an impressive slanted set by Susan Zeeman Rogers. A pine-paneled wall tipped onto the bias represents a tacky motel room, with two solidly slamming doors cutting the angles and a window overlooking the Mojave desert's empty darkness. John Malinowski's lighting is spectacular, from the single dangling light bulb that defines the motel room and the hot neon slash that marks its outside wall, through the stroboscopic effect of a car's headlights through the cracked window, to abstract splashes and streaks of green and orange colored light that lift segments of the scenes out of the reach of realism.

The "Love" of the play's title is a forbidden one, a love like that Shakespeare describes in sonnet 129: "An expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action....
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had, / Past reason hated."
May (Siobhan Brown) is living out of a suitcase in this run-down out-of-the-way motel room, when rodeo cowboy Eddie (Terrence McCrossan) bursts in on her, announcing that he has traveled more than 2000 miles to find her and be together with her once more. May says she's not interested. She's on the wagon, in recovery from their obsessive, illicit love. For fifteen years, she says, Eddie has tracked her down, seduced, and then abandoned, her. She has loved him, and she has hated him. Now, she says, all she wants is for him to go away. But when Eddie starts for the door, May flings herself at his feet and clings to his knees to prevent him from leaving. When Eddie seems to have prevailed and gathers May into a passionate kiss, she concludes the embrace by kneeing him in the groin.

Watching this, commenting on it, is The Old Man (Michael Bradshaw), whose person, chair, and ever-present booze exist in some other, or some immaterial, space. The Old Man reveals that he is their Old Man, the one who fathered both of them. He divided his life and love between wife and mistress while hiding each woman's existence from the other -- "the same love", he says, "only split". When May's desperately needy mother ferrets out the Old Man's other address and the families do meet, it is a disaster. The Old Man abandons them all, and none of them ever sees him again (unless his spectral appearance on stage with them here counts as being seen). Eddie's mother committs suicide.

The half-siblings supply differing stories about how their on-again off-again mutual obsession began and progressed, and the relationship's mysterious quality is deepened by disjunctions between what the pair say and what they do as we, and The Old Man, watch them.

Each member of the pair has an alternative to being sexually enthralled with each other. Eddie's other lover is "the countess", an off-stage celebrity who appears on magazine covers and drives a Mercedes-Benz. This unseen character, a woman scorned, appears to be capable of anything. Her primal rage at rejection is such that she has tracked the handsome rodeo rider to this tacky motel, where she sprays the outside of May's room with bullets.

May's own would-be lover is Martin (John Porell), a mild-mannered gardener who shows up at the motel at the moment when Eddie is forcing himself on a shrieking May and pummels Eddie in an attempt to rescue her. When May protests that Martin has misinterpreted the situation and introduces Eddie as her cousin, Martin placates Eddie by telling him that he merely wants to escort May to the movies -- to take the lady to whatever picture show she wants to see. Eddie passes Martin his tequila bottle and treats him to displays of rivalrous jealousy. It is Martin to whom, subsequently, the brother and sister tell their conflicting romantic histories--- rather than confiding their feelings directly to the audience. Martin is, naturally, confused by the pair of them, and unsure of how to respond to such shocking revelations. As is the audience, of course.

In the Coyote production, the audience response is distanced and baffled by the performance style as well as by the non sequiturs of the script, even though all the actors are competent, and all the acting choices make perfect sense. McCrossan is as attractive an Eddie as one could wish -- blond but manly good looks right out of a classic Western movie, swagger, charisma, the ability to project passion and drunkenness and pain and longing. Brown has an impressive physical presence, and her numbness and lack of purpose seems a reasonable reaction to the terrors of forbidden passion: after all, May's mother gave in wholeheartedly to her illicit love for The Old Man, and her mother's life was pathetic, a cautionary tale. Porell plays a Martin who after plunging in and making a fool of himself on his entrance is slow to react and reluctant to judge -- again a reasonable choice. And of course, Bradshaw's Old Man isn't "really" present, so it makes sense that no one responds to him.

But while individually these choices may be good ones, collectively they add up to a very cool "Fool For Love", and a whole that is less than the sum of its parts. When each character is cocooned in solipsism, the best moments of this play about physical passion turn out to be purely literary ones, where the actors simply recite and invite the audience to give imaginative life to Shepard's words. Meanwhile, the intensely realized design elements do their part to fragment and frame the action as a series of separate images in a collage rather than as an emotional journey. The effect is very postmodern; very discrete--like channel surfing through a thematically related series of commercials, all exploiting the iconography of Western Romance. I came away from Mousseau's Coyote production with renewed admiration for the writing of the play, but strangely unmoved by its passions.