Rock-and-Roll Jesus with a Cowboymouth (Revisited); Sam Shepard Gets Personal with American Theatre Once Again-20 Years Later

By Shewey, Don | American Theatre, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Rock-and-Roll Jesus with a Cowboymouth (Revisited); Sam Shepard Gets Personal with American Theatre Once Again-20 Years Later


Shewey, Don, American Theatre


"SO, WHAT ARE WE UP TO HERE?"

It doesn't take long for Sam Shepard to get to the heart of the matter--casually, directly, existentially. Here we are, in a restaurant in downtown St. Paul, Minn., on a cold and gray November afternoon. What we're up to is an interview, obviously, though the occasion is a little murkier than usual. A playwright of Shepard's stature ordinarily sits down for a major interview only when there's a new project to promote. As it happens, shepard does have a new play, but he's not quite finished writing it, and it won't be produced until the fall of 2004 at the earliest. The occasion for our meeting has more to do with the history of this magazine. Shepard appeared on the cover of the very first issue, and going back to him seemed like a felicitous way to mark the 20th anniversary of American Theatre.

What is Shepard up to these days? Plenty. The guy who first made his mark on American drama in the late 1960s with a torrent of wildly poetic one-acts bursting with rock-and-roll energy turned 60 in November. He remains steadily productive as an artist, just not necessarily in the theatre. Since New York's Signature Theatre Company devoted its entire 1996-97 season to his work (on the heels of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's acclaimed Broadway revival of his Pulitzer-winning Buried Child), Shepard has produced only two new plays--Eyes for Consuela (adapted from an Octavio Paz story) at Manhattan Theatre Club, and The Late Henry Moss, staged at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 2000 and the following year at Signature in New York.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Still, revivals of older works keep him in the public eye. The Broadway production of True West in 2000 starred the hot young film actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, who alternated in the leading roles. That show was directed by Matthew Warchus, who made a film of Shepard's Simpatico (released in 2000 and now available on DVD) and who will most likely direct his new play, a farce entitled The God of Hell, next season on Broadway. In addition, the Roundabout Theatre Company is considering a revival of Fool for Love, possibly directed by Sam Mendes.

While his theatrical writing has slowed down substantially, Shepard has also published two well-received volumes of prose, Cruising Paradise (1996) and Great Dream of Heaven (2002), both of which shuffle chunks of short fiction together with memoirs, dialogue and journal entries. And, of course, he has taken what seemed at first to be a fluky side-line into movie acting and turned it into an active and lucrative career. In the last five years alone, Shepard has acted in 16 features. They have ranged from Ridley Scott's Oscar-nominated action flick Black Hawk Down to run-of-the-mill TV movies such as Dash and Lilly, in which he played Dashiell Hammett to Judy Davis's Lillian Hellman. For theatre aficionados, by far the most interesting Shepard-related film available is This So-Called Disaster, a documentary directed by Michael Almereyda, whose modern-dress movie version of Hamlet featured Ethan Hawke in the title role and Shepard as the ghost of Hamlet's father. The documentary has its theatrical premiere this month at the Film Forum in New York City.

This So-Called Disaster focuses on the Magic Theatre production of The Late Henry Moss, which Shepard directed himself with an eye-popping cast of movie stars, including Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and Cheech Marin, along with longtime Shepard stalwarts Sheila Tousey and, in the title role, James Gammon. Halfway through the rehearsal period, Shepard saw that something extraordinary was happening and invited Almereyda in to witness the process. The result fascinates on two fronts. It's an unusually intimate portrait of high-powered actors at work. With this bunch, the testosterone level is extremely high, and yet their struggles are both touching (see Sean Penn wrestle with his own perfectionistic standards) and amusing (see Shepard attempt to explain Brechtian theory to Woody Harrelson--and succeed! …

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