KPBS AIRDATE: April 23, 1997
Two mythical towns, filled with expectation and broken dreams. In dramatically disparate plays, written in radically different styles, Brian Friel creates Ballybeg, and Sam Shepard gives us… Hollywood.
Shepard’s “Angel City” was written in 1976, before he won his Pulitzer and Oscar and Palme d’Or at Cannes. He was just a playwright then, not a celebrity actor, but he’d grown up in southern California and he had his finger on its erratic pulse. Two decades later, everything in this quirky little play still holds true: image is everything, stardom is nirvana, disasters make blockbusters, technology is eating us alive, and we’ll follow a shaman anywhere. Shame-on us. So many inventions, so little evolution.
With his grim, brutal surrealism, his non-linear, fragmentary form, his focus not on character or story but the making of images, Shepard is a natural for Sledgehammer. And though director Ethan Feerst definitely rises to the occasion, we feel as if we’ve heard it all and seen it before. Despite the muscularity of Shepard’s writing, the ideas, though timely and relevant, just don’t seem that fresh. And we have seen this before; Feerst’s production is eerily similar to his 1990 staging of Shepard’s “Seduced.” There’s a big chair center-stage, and someone intoning into a microphone. But image is the specialité de la maison chez Sledge, and there are some wonderful stage pictures. Michelle Riel’s set is terrific: a flat, white, sterile split-level studio office, backed by lighting and sound that practically make it pulsate.
This is a very specific, very focused production; Sledgehammer isn’t always under this much control. Best of all is the cast; every one of the five plus sax-man is a winner, true to the way Shepard himself conceived and described them: “not whole characters… but a fractured whole with bits and pieces of characters flying off the central theme.” It’s a pretty horrific, apocalyptic vision. Hollywood as symbol of a greedy, empty, gullible, self-destructive society. “It’s no business,’ says the movie producer, ‘it’s a disease.’”
Now, in Brian Friel’s fanciful town of Ballybeg, there isn’t much action or glamour, but the disappointment and desperation are palpable. Friel has been compared to Chekhov, but “Dancing at Lughnasa,” a haunting memory play, is more like an Irish “Glass Menagerie,” a young man’s lyrical remembrance of the five prominent women in his life: his unmarried mother and her four spinster sisters. In this quasi-autobiographical piece, which won Britain’s equivalent of the Tony for best play in 1990, and three Tonys on Broadway in 1991, Michael is the narrator, the playwright’s alter-ego, tenderly recalling the poor, cramped home in the tiny little village, where, in 1936, life began to unravel during the harvest festival of Lughnasa. It’s all about restraint and abandon, wishing versus acting, Christianity versus paganism.
North Coast Rep director Olive Blakistone has assembled an extremely capable cast, but she’s put them into a stodgy, kitchen-sink drama, instead of an ethereal, impressionistic reminiscence. All the subtlety, poetry and sentiment have been drained from the play. Don Loper’s Michael doesn’t look back wistfully; he just sits statically on the sidelines and tells a story, while his aunts talk to a dead space that should be him. Carmen Beaubeaux is wonderful as the earthy aunt Maggie, and John Steed gives one of his best performances as Michael’s jauntily irresponsible father. Marty Burnett’s set is fabulous, but this beautiful play has otherwise not been lovingly served.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.