The theatre as an art form seems to be receding from relevance to our lives. With the exception of Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America, plays about contemporary problems have yielded to film as the art form of preference in our contemporary culture. But theatre in America, which has been pronounced dead by doomsday pundits annually for 50 years, is a reluctant corpse. Surviving the threats of talkies, television and interactive video, this phoenix constantly resuscitates itself to provide what only theatre can: the engagement of an audience with live action, whose outcome is existentially uncertain. As any living actor can tell you, even though they follow the same script, no two performances can ever be the same. The theatre is itself a living metaphor of the unpredictable human condition. Nothing can be taken for granted, because tonight might be different: Inspiration or disaster may strike, and in the theatre, you are there to vicariously experience the unknowable unfolding of the future. Sam Shepard has been at the forefront of the reinvention of contemporary theatre, and his rampant popularity with younger American audiences has been the one constant in the last 20 years of theatre history. So it is timely that the Black Theatre Troupe is reviving his Suicide in B Flat.

In the past few years, the buzz word among the avant-garde has been "magic realism," the style that emerged from contemporary Hispanic cultures, most notably in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). In the theatre, the plawrights Eduardo Machado (whose Floating Islands debuts this month in a six-hour production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles) and Jose Rivera are the best-known proponents of this hybrid of surrealism and naturalism. Mainstream theatre has yet to embrace the hysterical excesses of the form, but Phoenix does not have to worry about being out of date, because Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre is staging Amparo Garcia's quintessential play of magic realism Cocks Have Claws and Wings to Fly. Here is a perfect opportunity to examine experimental theatre.

What is it the avant-garde seeks to tell us when traditional theatre forms fail to communicate? In the avant-garde, the gestalt of images is given equal or greater significance than language. To be sure, Shepard uses language as well as any contemporary playwright, but it is his indelible images that permeate our consciousness and are branded on our brains. Suicide in B Flat is a playful riff on the limitations of drama, logic and language. Shepard exhorts us to "try to reconstruct the imagination!" A spoof of the detective-story form (both Dick Tracy and Raymond Chandler are invoked), the play is an improvisatory exploration of the techniques of storytelling, using the methods of jazz. There are extended solos for each of the players, spinning speculative explanations for the death of a missing musician, Niles, a presumed suicide, whose outline is chalked on the steeply raked black surface of the stage. Music equals adventure in Shepard's formula. He is interested in "visual music" and wants to understand how it relates to breaking from tradition. Music, he notes, has no need for politics. What is a musician? What's a guy doing up there, blowing his brains out on a horn? This is the metaphorical suicide we are trying to grasp. To solve the crime, he has given us two detectives, both ignorant and opinionated. Louis, the dumber detective, claims he is a Republican, and his idea of music is Tommy Dorsey or the Mills Brothers. "Reagan, he's my man!" he declares, somewhat presciently four years before the actor became the president. In terms of visceral imagery, one detective ends up shot three times in the lower intestine, while the other sports an arrow protruding grotesquely from his back. Along the way, in spite of his playful stance, Shepard wails some melancholy observations: "You'd think in a nation this big, there'd be someone to talk to." The reply: "You talk to yourself and everybody else is talking to themselves." Shepard reveals a longing for a new dimension. This play, written in 1976, doesn't really succeed, but Shepard subsequently found that new dimension in his later plays. Here his longing produces only a fragment, an unfulfilled ache. It is powerful, nonetheless, for its evocation of troubles to come. One's thoughts of suicide come after all your friends have died off, says Shepard, years before the advent of the AIDS epidemic.

The experience of Suicide is a drifting, dreamlike cascade of images, a free fall from the precipice of logic, diving from one world to another world, surfing on cosmic free association. At last the dramatist reveals his ploy, as he allows Niles to admit the other characters are all in his head. "You can't just invent someone and put them up here!" "Sure you can! You just did." With a guarded optimism, Shepard shares his feeling for the superiority of music over words: "What did the music say?"

"It said there was a chance--a slim chance."
Mockingly, the playwright retorts: "What are you waiting for--the Truth?"
With a bow to Pirandello, Shepard has played with our sense of balance, throwing off our inner ear to make sure we hear his urgent, dark, disturbing question: Are we responsible for the violence of our imagination? As he is hauled away for the murder of his characters, the creator/musician/Niles/Shepard asks, "Am I inside you?"

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