contemporary imagery & ancient myth

[from "Myth Mouth," by James Leverett, Other Stages, February 22, 1979]


Finally it looks as though New York has recognized Sam Shepard for who he is: the most important American playwright of his generation. In spite of international acclaim and critical recognition for his ability to encompass large issues of myth and identity, and to do so with the originality of a true visionary, this city has too often played the laggard in presenting his work and, once presented, in supporting it. This sad situation should be changing with the favor shown Buried Child and, more recently, Seduced.

Of an importance equal to the new successes is the renewed attention which smaller theatres are devoting to his earlier works. There are two significant developments in this regard: Theatre artists, especially younger ones, are stretching themselves beyond the confines of traditional American realistic drama by attempting to meet Shepard's special, highly stylized and poetic demands. Furthermore, artists are searching out other American writers whose creative horizons are similarly broad and challenging. The Shepard/Patti Smith Cowboy Mouth at Theatre XII and Tyson Studio's combination of Shepard's Cowboys No. 2 with The Wax Museum by John Hawkes (both productions playing through February 25) are promising examples of this welcome exploration.

Cowboy Mouth is a crossroad of dynamic encounters. To write it, Shepard -- the poet/playwright. ever dancing on the crumbling edge of the American myth --collaborated with Patti Smith -- the poet/rockstar, always trying to link new sounds and rhythms with ageless, sacred ecstasy. Then the two met again on stage in the 1971 American premiere when they played the roles which they had forged from their visions of themselves and the world: Cavale, a clubfooted outcast (her name means escape), who has kidnapped and then bewitched Slim, a tenth-rate musician whom she dreams of making into the Rock-and-Roll Savior.

These roles were surely galvanized by the in-person charisma of their creators, but their actual presence is not necessary for the encounter of the stage characters to vibrate with meaning. What gives the play its mysterious resonance and sense of deeper significance is the way that contemporary imagery has been connected with ancient myth. Cavale is shadowed by the raven (she wears ragged black and mothers a stuffed crow); Slim, by the coyote (he wears red and breaks into howls). These are the great tricksters of American Indian lore: demigods embodying at once the most foolish, lecherous, dishonest and disorderly creatures of humanity while also being its teachers and civilizers. Combined together, Cavale and Slim become the archetypical artist, living on the extreme edge of society but transmitting back to it its own meaning and myth. The language for this transmission is incantatory: rock and roll, rich and raucous.

What these two search for among the shards of pop culture clogging their room and their minds is a new myth, born of all the dreams and litter to bring wholeness and meaning to the world. What Shepard/Slim, and Smith/Cavale conjure up, though, is the funny, terrible Lobster Man -- at once a delivery boy and a nightmare. It is literally the "rough beast" of Yeats' poem which, instead of slouching off to Bethlehem to be born, splits open before our eyes like a bizarre chrysalis to reveal the new messiah.

Where the Theatre XII production, under the direction of Mentha Marley III, succeeds is in making the relationship between the spaced-out freak and her captive lover comprehensible in human terms. Sherrie Ahlin and Stephen Ivester act with conviction and inventive energy to accomplish the mercurial mood changes so crucial to the piece. Both can also handle Shepard's language, often stunningly beautiful even in its obscenity. Where the production fails is where it should explode into a mythic realm. Most damaging is the unfortunate casting of the Lobster Man. Although this character does not speak a line and seems at first ludicrous, it is his presence that ultimately lifts the work into the sphere of the uncanny. (This phenomenon was admittedly helped in the original production by Ralph Lee's miraculous costume.) This actor makes the messiah into a rather slack Arnold Schwarzenegger. With all of our beastly cultural icons from Sid Vicious to Jim Jones, this choice seems trivial and silly. But all in all, the outlines of this fascinating, vintage Shepard work are intact and parts of it, though not all, are happily filled in.

Copyright © James Leverett 1979

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