"Sometimes I think it’s good that foreigners look at something that is very familiar to you. We see that in life, when we get foreigners coming to our country, the way they choose to like or not like your country, what they find interesting or not interesting. That goes also with a play. When a foreigner looks at what is so natural for you, it’s not natural for us, so we want to give it an extra light."
In the above quote–from Erik Piepenburg’s New York Times blog of 12/7/09—Liv Ullmann is referring to her recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire at BAM. There, she didn’t see Blanche Dubois as someone who needed to conform (as do most American directors of the play, beginning with Elia Kazan). She also didn’t see New Orleans as gothic or to be presented in terms of atmospherics–her setting is mundane, Brutalist. Now, a new play by Sam Shepard, Ages of the Moon, has been brought to the Atlantic Theater Company by Ireland’s Abbey Theater. What we see is also something not very familiar to Americans—it’s certainly not the wild, hyper-real Sam Shepard we thought we knew (recall that in the first New York production of Fool for Love for Circle Rep., the doors of the set were miked, giving maximum effect to every slam). Without endlessly chirping crickets in a lonely, prefabricated America, Jimmy Fay directs a different interpretation of Shepard: here, between two older men, we find a largely naturalistic play, brilliantly paced and told very simply, clocking in at approximately 75 minutes without intermission.
As you watch, you might be reminded of Beckett and O’Neill—or maybe see both at the same time. Consider the pieta-like pose of the two men near the end, a kind of combination of the tramps in Waiting for Godot and Josie’s and James’s moving late scene in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Like Beckett—whose later work included video animation of moving patterns (a forerunner of Richard Maxwell and Young Jean Lee, who take characters out of their plays today)–Shepard is fascinated by repetitions—drinking, pulling fan cords, staring into silence. He’s also portraying older characters on stage without reducing them to corny stereotypes of being grumpy and forgetful. I wondered if there were enough motivational elements for the actors, much less enough background to be understood by the audience. After watching the incestuous relationship in Fool for Love or the competitive brothers reverting to childishness in True West, the friends in Ages of the Moon, Byron and Ames, seem almost remote. Would one, without much money, really spend three days on a Greyhound to visit someone he hadn’t seen in years—because of an incident of marital discord? The men’s pasts don’t seem knotted together tightly enough or deeply covered—unless part of the point is that men never really become all that close. Ames does say they aren’t joined at the hip–so when Byron is asked to leave, it doesn’t really hurt. It may not matter, though, because Shepard is so adept at keeping the dramatic engine of a play running, whether one considers this one from a Ford or a Jaguar. I also thought one section–where the action and discussion surrounds a physical ailment–too “talky” given the emergency circumstances. Even if we can’t decide whether this is a contemporary Umberto D. or a new Lear, however, Shepard may be giving more senior actors something almost as important: work.
The Irish cast won’t quite convince anyone that they’re American, although you won’t be able to tell that by listening to their accents. As this reviewer doesn’t read anything about a play before seeing it, ridiculously, he didn’t understand what was different in Ages of the Moon (not realizing that the actors weren’t from the U.S.). Scribbled into notes are: “cultured in a way his other plays aren’t” and “too literate, too articulate” for both Shepard and the characters (Shepard has been published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and in a new collection of short stories lately, and I thought he might be going too literary on us). There’s one line in the script about “the alacrity” of a “dick”; there’s another during a fight where a character says, “unhand me.” Unhand me? Another theory might be that the actors were playing the lines straight—they weren’t quite hitting the sarcasm, the jocularity; they didn’t understand that when they were using a fifty-cent word, in the U.S., it’s typically emphasized in some way as a fifty-cent word. The actors also didn’t quite have the physical ease—as, perhaps, given the ages, it should be–for the fighting or the fading locker-room bravado to pull off the coarseness: We’re talking about two actors coming from a different context, from a predominantly Catholic country, discussing blow jobs, hookers, snatch. It’s not that there aren’t equivalent discussions elsewhere. It’s that Shepard’s Americans lived through an open sexual revolution—they can have casual sex because it’s part of our free-wheeling right to the pursuit of happiness and because our popular culture doesn’t blink an eye at it. As Sarah Palin, or Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin, might say, “Sam Shepard is a maverick.” Sean McGinley and Stephen Rea are serious actors, coming from an often rigid culture where it’s still a big deal to get a divorce, playing mature men—American actors would most likely emphasize swagger, the immaturity, the impact of a rootless society; older men playing little boys, or, as this script notes, “motherless” children.
Two men wait for an eclipse—in the sky as well as in their lives. One monologue, especially, spoken by Byron about a walk with his wife is a stunner. Jimmy Fay imagines a Sam Shepard play without cowboys and mythology. A foreign director is willing to risk re-seeing a by-now conventional way of performing an established playwright while he’s still alive. If the production’s excellence, finally, doesn’t hit across the forehead, gut, or heart, it still doesn’t mean this hasn’t been a dangerous act. For those who prefer the Shepard of Steppenwolf, a playwright to watch might be Derek Ahonen—whose all-hell-breaks-loose Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side played downtown last year for an extended run. For those intrigued by a new Shepard—because, despite what one character says, people do care–the moon hasn’t really gone dark; it’s just coming into a new phase.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
Visit the Atlantic Theater Company Web site: http://www.atlantictheater.org/
Visit the Sam Shepard Web site: http://www.sam-shepard.com/
AGES OF THE MOON by Sam Shepard
336 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011-3302
Written for and starring leading Irish actors Seán McGinley and Stephen Rea, Atlantic presents the Abbey Theatre production of Ages of the Moon – a gruff, poignant and funny new play by Sam Shepard.
Byron and Ames are old friends, re-united by mutual desperation. Over bourbon on ice, they sit, reflect and bicker until fifty years of love, friendship and rivalry are put to the test at the barrel of a gun.
“Those Shepard boys are still tearing down the house… A poignant and honest continuation of themes that have always been present in the work of one of this country’s most important dramatists. Longtime fans of Shepard should definitely see this play.”
– Ben Brantley, The New York Times
“The dialogue is tangy and twangy, particularly as delivered by two fine actors, Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley…Not only is the talk spot on, so are the silences, which pepper the spasms of conversation. Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley expertly chew on Shepard’s hardtack dialogue, extracting every last drop of humor and spitting out the gristle. Ages of the Moon should score with Shepard fans.”
– Michael Kuchwara, Associated Press
“Highly entertaining, thanks to generous doses of sly humor and the wonderful performances by both actors.”
–Frank Scheck, New York Post
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