In Hotel Chronicles, his offbeat memoir, Sam Shepard recounts how he used to sleepwalk around his house at night. His parents told him they had to tuck him back in bed in a somnambulistic state. Shepard, yearning to experience a closer connection with his parents, began to fake sleepwalking, especially when he heard his parents making love. Thus, part of Shepard's reality became the playacting of his dreams, just as his nightly fantasies acted themselves out using his body without him even knowing. This early experience is indicative of how there's no clear line between the real and the imaginary in Shepard's work: there are only seamless inversions of both.
In Action, four awkward members of a Dust Bowl family—who are, at once, total strangers and aspects of a single person—go through the rituals of Christmas dinner. They begin with long pauses, blinks, and stares while nervously sipping tea. Each character is in his or her own head, flipping through a book, telling a story no one listens to, or tapping feet under the table. As one character remarks to himself, "It's hard to have a conversation." When another offers to do someone a favor, it's perceived as a kind of thinly veiled threat. The action, however, is quick to escalate.
Jeep, the character for whom the whole scene may be a nightmare inside his head, smashes a couple of chairs in his rage at not being able to express himself. His brother, Shooter, goes to fetch a new chair—and meanwhile misses out on the turkey dinner. Jeep, in a quirky twist that's pure Shepard, has miraculously found a fish in the well outside, and begins to carve it up for Shooter. The smell wafts palpably throughout the small theater.
By the end, the images suffice to express the characters' sense of anomie and isolation: the women fasten and unfasten pee-stained underwear to a clothesline, Shooter cowers under an easy chair like a turtle, and Jeep screams that he has been imprisoned in a body over which he's lost all control. Penny Bettone portrays Jeep with a manic, masculine rage that still manages to keep some inward tenderness and vulnerability intact.
Cowboys #2, which also plays on levels of reality, is a rewrite of Shepard's first one-act, which he has lost. Two bums pass their time at a construction site playacting the part of cowboys. They wallow in the mud during a flash flood and long for a better life—and some breakfast, too, especially since one of them is a diabetic.
While the play is slight in itself, it provides a few entertaining monologues so the actors can let loose and act goofy. Both Jason Kalus and Adrian O'Donnell, as Chet and Stu, give rollicking, honky-tonk performances with lots of twang when they play their characters' cowboy alter egos. The actors are just as capable of suddenly pulling back, though, into more serious moods when their characters' mundane existence interrupts their game of make-believe.
The short play powerfully foreshadows Shepard's distinctive style: taut, well-plotted conflicts are abandoned to allow for wild, extended metaphors and stories of personal damage. Cowboys #2, like many of the plays Shepard was to write later, is about how reality often intrudes violently upon our fantasy lives.
Chicago, a play that demands that the dream state be accepted as a premise for reality, offers Tim Scott, playing Stu, a wonderful opportunity to mesmerize the audience with more of Shepard's zany tall tales as he flops and splashes around in a bathtub with his pants still on. Be forewarned: Artistic Director Michael Horn passes out towels to those seated in the first row, and they come in handy.
Stu represents the helpless slacker out of his element in the cutthroat corporate fish tank. His wife, who has just landed a new job, keeps receiving in the backroom upscale visitors who wear expensive suits or minks and haute couture dresses. These visitors also carry fishing rods, the bait of which they later dangle into the audience.
The fun, intimate atmosphere keeps the audience game for the high jinks: on the night I saw the play, an audience member in back of me teasingly gulped at the bait as it swayed in front of him. By the end of the play, after his wife has left for work, Stu gives breathing lessons as he steps out of the bathtub's little pond and into the bigger "pond" of the stage. Audience members cannot help but feel a mysterious energy as they inhale and exhale along with him.
Director Tom Amici has assembled a wonderful cast all around and has created a thoughtful production whose small scale allows the important details of Shepard's plays to shine through. When audiences exit from the intimate, comic nightmares of these early Shepard one-acts, life itself seems a kind of sleepwalking.