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theatre has yet to embrace the hysterical excesses of the form, but Phoenix does not have to worry about being out of date, because Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre is staging Amparo Garcia's quintessential play of magic realism Cocks Have Claws and Wings to Fly.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?"
The production is directed with aplomb by Mark DeMichele, who clearly understands his playwright. Ten previous productions of Shepard's work are listed in his program bio. The cast is uniformly imaginative, and special kudos go to Mike Traylor, whose sense of rhythm informed his arias with a special understanding of the blend of drama and music. I also enjoyed the booming bluster of Charles St. Clair and the dumb earnestness of Gene Meeks as the bumbling detectives. Ken Love plays Niles with authority.
Suicide in B Flat tantalizes the imagination with playful parries, but lacking a full-fledged drama, one is left hungering for the mature Shepard of Buried Child or Fool for Love. The master of the American avant-garde has only sharpened our appetite to devour the concomitant feast of imagery on display at Planet Earth.
A kaleidoscopic portrait of a dysfunctional family, Cocks Have Claws and Wings to Fly moves through multiple settings, including Pedro and Alfredo's sophisticated home, Mama's rustic dwelling deep in south Texas, St. Francis Church and "a place only a few can see." The ultrareligious Mama Mirta, a licensed nurse who used to hit herself in the head with a frying pan, has come to visit her successful son, Pedro, an accountant in Austin. She has brought along with her the shell-shocked Vietnam vet Tio, her late husband's uncle, whom she plans to marry, and by whom she is pregnant. She has also brought along her son Guero, a troubled hallucinatory druggie who has had difficulty accepting the untimely death of his father, and is haunted by echoes from Gielgud's recording of Hamlet. Guero has long, blond hair and is thought to be a bastard because of his fairness. Sofia, the younger sister of the two brothers, is a senior at the University of Texas, where she majors in psychology and is happily cohabitating with an Anglo hunk named Scott. For the duration of Mama's visit, Pedro's lover Alfredo is displaced unwillingly to the Holiday Inn, because Mama would prefer to ignore her son's homosexuality.
Even before the visitation of the unwelcome family, the two homosexual lovers are experiencing a strained time in their relationship, due to the desire of Alfredo to father a child with a surrogate mother, and Pedro's reluctance to accept the responsibilities of parenthood.
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In terms of plot, not much happens beyond the revelations of the complex circumstances in which these characters are mired, but much of the imagery is very funny and oddly moving. The magical evening begins with an angel, a beautiful young woman with flowing, silky hair, who gracefully glides around the stage to a choral cacophony, guiding us through a dumb show/dance that introduces us to the large cast in psychological gestures of primal imagery. We are soon treated to wonderfully idiosyncratic detail. The family eternally eats KFC, much to the disgust of vegetarian Alfredo. Guero visits the cemetery to talk to his dead father and read him the comics. As a child, Sofia was afraid of the toilet, thinking "the doo-doo spiders" would get her. A dumb show reveals how Tio lost his soul in Vietnam; he uses a guitar as a machine gun, while the angel crouches in a coolie hat. From time to time, Mama runs about brandishing a crucifix and a squirt bottle labeled "Holy H2O."
Contrasting with this madness is a sobering angst. The play floats eerily among the spheres of dreams, visions and hallucinations. Can too much prayer cause madness? Are priests truly only "pimps selling the meat of Christ"? It's a crazy world, and we are told that those who live as if it weren't are themselves crazy. Sofia challenges her pregnant mother: "Why do you want to bring another opinion into the world?" Much of this imagery is very effectively staged by director Peter James Cirino. Vivid scenes of wrestling, biting and struggling are given a convincing physical reality that rivets our belief. Crying "I don't want to live," Pedro struggles with his lover in a tortured embrace, alternately longing to comfort and love and hurt and reject. The impossibility of sustaining a single impulse in the face of the complexity of their situation is deeply moving.
Rex Whisler and David Akin make sympathetic lovers, but most memorable is the vibrant performance of Edee Trejo as sister Sofia. Trejo, shaking her luxurious dark curls, is always honest and unpredictable, with an originality evocative of Marisa Tomei. As for the Mama, one longs to see an actress of stature play this virtuoso role (someone like Antonia Rey or Olympia Dukakis), but Kimberli A. Davis-Baker copes courageously, if not skillfully. A lively debate might be sparked by the question of whether the play has been well-served by Planet Earth's policy of ethnically blind casting. It might be argued that some fine details of Latino life in Texas have been glossed over, but perhaps the play has gained in universality by not being confined to a specific ethnic origin. If, like Sam Shepard, you yearn for images that soar on wings of surprise, fly over to Planet Earth for a play that is out of this world.