Friday, July 4, 2014

Post-mortem: a Shepard stumble at Trinity

The fresh faces at Trinity can't save Shepard from his own bald symbology.  Photos: Mark Turek.

Dark theatrical clouds sometimes come with a silver lining (at least to those with a critical cast of mind), as the wrong turns a bomb inevitably takes can lead the right observer to startling insights into the text at hand. For a terrible performance is often as well-oiled a machine as a brilliant one: everything fits together perfectly - it's just all headed in the wrong direction. Turn the show's artistic vision on its head, and suddenly you see how the play might work ideally. I never really understood Shakespeare's Cymbeline, for instance, until I suffered through one of the most godawful versions of it imaginable; once my mind broke free from my appalled response, however, I was able to consider the inverse of the production's every misstep. As a result, now I feel I'm ready to direct it myself!

Although to be honest, such eureka moments are most satisfying when the text, though flawed, is still fundamentally worthwhile (like Cymbeline). I'm not quite sure I can make that claim for A Lie of the Mind, the Sam Shepard epic that was meant to form a triumphal arch over his achievement, but instead signaled the last gasp of his artistry. It did also, of course, win a Drama Desk Award (among others). But so it goes. The critics are always the last to know.

At any rate, Trinity Rep saw fit to revive the show (which closed last week), and this was a risk, to be sure - riskier still given the wild variability of its director's previous productions. Brian Mertes (the head of Trinity's directing program!) likes to paint with broad brushes, and bright, cold colors; the results so far have included a bracing Clybourne Park, and easily the worst production I've ever seen from this venerable theatre, a Crime and Punishment that played like Dostoevsky crossed with Breaking Bad on a Mardi Gras float.

Alas, most of the signature flubs of that C & P are echoed in A Lie of the Mind - self-consciously clumsy set design and air-quote acting chief among them. But to be fair, the collegiate symbology comes from Shepard himself, who in his magnum opus played Dr. Frankenstein with his own oeuvre: to make up the play's three-hour running time (cut down from over four, legend has it!) he simply stitched together pieces of his previous hits: you might call the resulting theatrical Tinkertoy Curse of the Fool-Child Buried in the True West.

But whatever you call it, don't go see it (you have been warned). Even in his heyday, people compared Shepard's plays to pop songs: punchy and raw, but also fragmented, simplistic - and best when brief. At some level the author must have understood there was something to this critique (I'm an admirer of his stronger work, btw). But alas, even though he longed to go long-form, Mind demonstrated beyond a doubt that he was simply unable to; for while he clearly thinks he's building some sort of surreal arc over a yawning American abyss, or perhaps even pondering some essential problem of the self, the flailing playwright only makes each and every one of his signature tricks cruder and more garish. This time around, for instance, the immature boy-hero wanders about in actual short pants, and likes to wrap himself in the American flag; the spooky, feuding parents are certified loons, incest isn't just suggested, it's all but enacted, and the damaged girlfriend is literally brain-damaged - and just as there are not one but two dysfunctional families wandering the landscape, not one but two carcasses get dragged onstage. I guess you could call A Lie of the Mind "Shepard on steroids." That is if you like 'em big and stupid.

Or perhaps Mind seems more mindless than usual because it's short on Shepard's strongest suit: his language is flatter than we expect here, and there's no grand, freak-out soliloquy like the ones that glue together Starving Class and Buried Child. Although to be fair, the script does boast about a half-hour of fresh writing: the scenes focused on the hero's brother, trapped with a rotting flesh wound in a snowbound cabin with his indifferent in-laws, do edge Shepard's themes toward newly-ghoulish comedy. Clearly the author's mojo hadn't entirely given up the ghost; he just didn't have the sense (or humility) to strip everything else out and pen another of his savage little one-acts.

The old guard is at lost as the new in A Lie of the Mind. Photos: Mark Turek

So to my mind, A Lie of the Mind represents an uphill battle for any company; still, Trinity has quite the track record when it comes to Shepard (some of their great productions of the early 80's still echo in my memory). They even have some of the same actors on tap. But alas, these vets have Brian Mertes as their director this time around, whose cartoonish sensibility seems to push them into every trap Shepard has unconsciously set. (Note to all directors of well-regarded acting companies: if things go south, we'll know it's your fault.) Meanwhile the fresher faces end up in pretty much the same place, although Britt Faulkner and Charlie Thurston somehow signal they're far better than their direction (their scenes together are among the few that click). It's hard to know how far everyone else could have gotten with a subtler approach, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility that A Lie of the Mind could hold the stage for much of its length (or at least not drive away about a quarter of the audience, as it did the night I attended).

So to recap: at the top of this essay, I did promise that through a process of critical inversion, I would be able to divine from this production an ideal version of Sam Shepard; thus, what follows are a few guiding principles for virgin directors of this great American playwright:

First - Shepard should be surreal, but not too surreal  - as soon as your production feels absurdist (much less self-consciously absurdist!) - you've gone too far; the gig is up, the game over.  Thus a Shepard set can show a kitchen table plunked down on a mesa, yes - but the details of both table and mesa must be believable; it's the realism of their co-existence that is key.  And even if you feel you can deconstruct the kitchen, you can't deconstruct the desert.  The West is always real in Shepard. (Hence the wall of fans that dominate this production only seems to comment on its own sense of afflatus.)

Likewise you shouldn't put quotes around Shepard's symbols: this only makes them feel balder. The acting works much the same way - heightened, but still tethered to naturalism; occasionally meta, but never mannered.  And certainly never overtly comic! (A central mistake here.)  There are one or two short Shepard efforts that are basically satires - and there's a wickedly bemused edge to many of his scenes; but all his major plays are essentially adolescent - and adolescents don't see themselves as funny.

Which brings me to my final point: what drives most Shepard plays, at bottom, is the characters' (I almost wrote the children's) desire to connect. It's a cliché, I know, but beneath all his surreal nihilism, this playwright is telling the same old sentimental American story of broken homes and broken hearts. If only we could have heard a little of it this time at Trinity!


  1. Why do set designers feel obliged to create such abstract and distractive design elements? The wall of chairs in "On The Verge," the wall of fans in "Lie of the Mind," what the actual fuck? (Same designer, perchance?)

  2. John, please! This is a family blog! (Well, a certain kind of family!)

    I don't know the answer to your question, but the old "Simple, makes a statement" line comes to mind.