Irrelevant Reverence

Back in the '60s and early '70s, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard was hanging out in the East Village and writing strange off-off-Broadway shows for the new wave of American avant-garde theater. Irreverent and dismissive of artistic pretension, he wrote in a 1971 program note that "I like to yodel and dance and fuck a lot. Writing is neat because you do it on a very physical level….A lot of people think playwrights are some special brand of intellectual fruitcake with special awareness to special problems that confront the world at large. I think that's a crock of shit."

Such thinking would seem to make him a perfect match for the trickster talents of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, the troupe that has staged plays on moving school buses and held fund-raisers in parking garages. But IBP's current production of Shepard's lesser-known works, Chicago (1965) and Action (1975), move with such painful care over his wild terrain that the sickly shows end up succumbing to their own weary reverence for the great playwright's words.

Chicago features a character named Stu (Charlie Scott), who sits in a bathtub splashing his days away, while his wife, ironically named Joy (Tamarie Cooper), works. There's no narrative except that Joy is torn between playing with Stu in the tub and going off to work in Chicago. He recites his seemingly improvisational poetry -- "Biscuits in the sun. And ya run. And it's fun" -- while she actually does the work of making the biscuits. Wildly experimental and full of moments that reveal a young writer's burgeoning love of language, the play is muzzled here by the strangely stylized cadence with which many of the speeches are delivered. Instead of feeling improvised, the lines take on a mechanical tone that eventually enervates the writer's lyrical pranks.

Action is a more fully realized script and one that would pave the way for some of Shepard's biggest successes, including the Pulitzer-winning Buried Child. It concerns the aggravations of four people who find themselves stuck in a remote cabin after some unnamed apocalyptic event.

The script reveals how deeply influenced Shepard was by such writers as Samuel Beckett. There is no plot, just four characters drinking coffee. Incapable of any purposeful action, the characters instead go through a series of immediate "actions" such as eating a turkey, gutting a fish and hanging a basketful of laundry. All the while, they pose such ontological questions as How does one know how to act when there are no references for the current situation? The writing here is often extraordinary. Troy Schulze as Jeep, a man who's so inarticulate he smashes chairs to calm his nerves, is wonderful to look at with his shaved head and immense beard, and he can be very funny. George Parker as Shooter, the guy who finds an armchair and then decides he'll never move, is often wonderful; his dancing bear is almost enough reason to see the show.

But the few grand moments are undercut by many long silences and director Jason Nodler's inexplicable choice to drag out every moment, loading up the whole thing with a sense of reverent preciousness. The result is a consumptive production that is smothered by its own self-importance.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Williams