The other night I saw Bekah McNeil's production of Cowboy Mouth, a play written by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith, at The Exit Theater. The Exit's an unassuming place with only a sign reading "EXIT" out front to distinguish it. This sign, which glows right near the entrance, is a very Shepard-like touch. His plays often contain out-of-place objects that make deep sense; that is, they seem to originate in our dreams, where the anomalous symbol takes on a meaning personal to the dreamer.
But before I tell you about what I witnessed that night, I have a question: have you ever secretly wished to be famous? Or more to the point: can you imagine sabotaging your wildest dream?
The play begins when one character, Slim, enters a dirty apartment at gunpoint. Behind him, dancing and waving a pistol, is his lover, Cavale, who lives in the apartment. Aside from their physical attraction, the two have a strong artistic connection because Slim WANTS to be a creator/star and Cavale is creative to the point of near-madness. But on the night of the play's action Slim can't give himself entirely to Cavale because he's remorseful about what he's just lost by chasing her -- his wife and his child. In other words, he's thrown away his entire past in service to his dreams of fame. All evening Cavale urges him to shed the past entirely and emerge in a future where he will be a rock n' roll Jesus.
I can only imagine how emotionally difficult it must have been for Shepard to play Slim's role when Cowboy Mouth opened in 1971 (which he did, for one night, then he fled the production) because at the time he'd just left his wife and child for Patti Smith. But this production's Slim, Chris Carlone, is mischevious, reckless, and volatile. The real anguish of the situation -- Slim's (and Shepard's) sudden uprooting -- never seemed to make it to the surface. Instead, Carlone's Slim comes across as spoiled, critical of his lover, and certainly not deserving of the worship Cavale wants to heap on him. Cavale, played by Kimberly Schooling, is mad, vulnerable, and full of a potential she (that is, the character) doesn't realize. Her Cavale is full of charisma, which is interesting, because Slim believes that HE'S the main attraction, as he made the greater sacrifice in order to carry on with Cavale. This isn't necessarily a brand-new spin on the play, but for me it was a new spin on my view of Sam Shepard, who I've revered since the first time I read something by him. It's very apparent in this production that the Shepard who co-wrote the piece was young and confused and felt out of his league when dating Patti Smith. He was very human, indeed.
In between scenes Chris Kaup, a sweet-faced, mournful man wearing a fringed cowboy shirt, provides an unobtrusive but haunting soundtrack of original music. This device is a little startling at first, but once I got used to the idea of having a musician off to the side of the stage, I found that the accompaniment provides a soft frame for -- and a little respite from -- the cruel drama.
During the course of the evening Slim orders a lobster dinner. It's delivered, to the couple's amusement, by a creepy human-sized lobster. After the lobster drops off the food, the couple taunts each other in a way that's brutal and sexual all at once, never getting satisfactorily comfortable as a couple. Later, because they aren't sufficiently amusing each other, they call the lobster man back and beg him to return. He does, and Slim is finally able to leave Cavale and relieve himself of his own dreams -- and Cavale's expectations -- that he will be a rock-god. Kris Kaup, the musical accompanist, plays the role of the giant lobster. Very well, I might add. His presence is thrillingly disturbing, especially when he literally emerges from his carapace and turns out to be the rock god Cavale was waiting for, and he's as soft and vulnerable as the musical numbers that accompany the play.
This version of Cowboy Mouth has a lot to say about the nature of fame. To become famous one must make a lot of personal sacrifices, channel the audience's desires in lieu of one's true identity, and become incredibly vulnerable in the process. At the beginning of the play, Slim makes the initial sacrifice by severing his ties to the past, but by the end he rejects fame in order to hang on to the one thing he can't sacrifice: himself. The idea that the self is the last bastion of humanity is a very American notion, so Bekah McNeil's take on the play -- that to cling to the self is, well, SELFISH -- made me question this notion. Which was a little disorienting, much in the way dreams can be disorienting, because sure, I understand that celebrity is supposed to be difficult, but having never tasted it I can't quite shake the notion that fame is some kind of jackpot.
A Sam Shepard play is wide open to interpretational nuance, so please, judge for yourself and go see this play! Better yet, bring a few friends, think on it for a little while, and then discuss what you saw. Believe me, during that discussion you'll learn at least one new thing about your dreams, whether you expect them to be realized or not.
Cowboy Mouth runs October 5 - 21, 2006 at Exit Theatre. Call 415.218.6033 for tickets.