SAN DIEGO — Sam Shepard's writing "just kind of ignites itself," according to director Robert Woodruff.
Woodruff's stagings of Shepard's plays in their infancy, at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, always took careful note of this fact. The director (whose recent work proves he can direct with as much hoopla as anyone) wisely kept his ego out of the way.
It is now a cliche to talk about the power of Shepard's writing, to trace the rhythms of his jarring poetry of emotion back to his early years as a jazz drummer. But now that he has achieved the status of contemporary genius, it is more important than ever to discuss how his work ought to be staged. The last thing a Sam Shepard play needs is a "concept."
The San Diego Repertory Theatre has sadly layered tons of not-so-clever interpretation on his "Fool for Love." It opened Wednesday at the Lyceum Space.
The play survives, not because director Sam Woodhouse has done it any favors, but purely through the strength of the author's vision--which breaks through in the long monologues, where the actor-playwright pact overpowers any interference.
Just in case audiences are not smart enough to realize that this is a play about two people "trapped" in a love obsession, Woodhouse has staged the whole thing inside a huge iron cage, made obligingly ominous by designer D. Martyn Bookwalter. To be sure everyone "gets it," he has accompanied every slam of what is supposed to be a desert motel room door with a booming echo befitting a horror-flick tomb.
There's no chance anyone will miss this. It happens every few minutes, as May (Darla Cash) and Eddie (Patrick Dollaghan) struggle with their push-pull romance in the middle of what now appears to be a jail cell from some B movie.
Bookwalter's floor-to-ceiling bars, which circle a bare mattress and a couple of dingy chairs, do offer the actors something to climb on, a high peak from which May can express her anger at Eddie for running off with a "countess," a jungle-gym for Eddie to keep his stunt man skills in shape, parading his muscular masculinity in a taunting, threatening way.
With all this distraction, it seems forgotten that Shepard's plays build slowly, laying out fragments of lives that are usually exaggerated to a sharp edge of bizarre realism. The heat comes slowly, the intensity creeping through the dialogue gradually, bursting in sudden explosions all along the way but never revealing the full arsenal until late in the piece.
Woodhouse is not one for subtlety. He lets his couple trample the first scene with uncontrolled swings from fierce anger to paranoid dependency, unguided toward any ultimate emotional destination, unaware of how much more affecting Shepard's cage of words would be if they were left naked and unadorned.
Cash is usually brilliant on stage, but this kind of directing hasn't helped her to find May yet. Her obsession with Eddie seems remote, her performance indecisive. She has the ability to play the peaks and valleys, but the landscape in between is neglected.
Dollaghan does better as Eddie, substituting raw physicality for inner dialogue here and there but ultimately meeting the challenge of Shepard's long-winded storytelling.
In their scenes together, Eddie and May don't become flesh and blood. That happens midway through, when the wimpy Martin (Don Boughton) appears, ostensibly to take May to the movies. His real purpose is to give Eddie and the ghostly figure of his Old Man (an excellent Tavis Ross) a chance to relate the bizarre history of the twisted love-bond with May.
As Martin, Boughton is the perfect foil for Eddie's assaulting personality--awkward, scared and innocent. Ross, who takes up residence in the lobby before the performance, looks like he has been recruited from a nearby soup kitchen. His ghostly intrusions on the action are terrific, a much better reflection of Woodhouse's tendency toward overstatement.
Bookwalter's lighting is effective but subject to strange flashes and blinks. One hopes that the simultaneous bell sound does not mean the director wished to imply "round two" in a boxing ring, meddling in the drama with not one but two terrible and incompatible metaphors. The final flash on the wall of the play's title is in such poor taste that it is best forgotten.
Ingrid Helton's costumes fall on the bleak side of reality. Christopher Villa's "combat choreography" makes more than ample use of the available mattress. Igor Korneitchouk and Victor P. Zupanc's sound design--minus the tomb echoes--is soft enough to cushion the busybody effects.
If they can stand the insults, local audiences will find that Shepard's voice ultimately saves this "Fool For Love" from the foolish trappings the Rep has imposed.
"FOOL FOR LOVE"
By Sam Shepard. Directed by Sam Woodhouse. Scenic and lighting design by D. Martyn Bookwalter. Costume design by Ingrid Helton. Combat choreography by Christopher Villa. Sound design by Igor Korneitchouk and Victor P. Zupanc. With Darla Cash, Patrick Dollaghan, Tavis Ross and Don Boughton. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m., through Nov. 1 at the Lyceum Space, Horton Plaza. Produced by San Diego Repertory Theatre.