To anyone but a devoted student of playwright Sam Shepard, "Mad Dog Blues" probably doesn't jump out as one of his more memorable works.
Written in the mid-1960s and first produced in 1971, the rock 'n' roll fantasy is one of Shepard's earlier plays. It reflects a time when his writing was vividly imaginative but also obscure and puzzling.
"Mad Dog Blues" has rarely been staged since the '70s. The play's peculiar nature and relative unfamiliarity hasn't deterred UC Irvine's drama department. Under the direction of Prof. Keith Fowler, UCI's head of theater directing, "Mad Dog Blues" will be offered tonight through Saturday at the campus' Fine Arts Little Theatre.
In fact, UCI was drawn to "Mad Dog Blues" because of its odd quality and the knowledge that few people have been exposed to Shepard's first efforts.
"The recent work, his stronger work ("Buried Child," "Fool for Love" and "True West"), will get done and end up on stage, but something like this may not," Fowler said. "As an exploration of Shepard's roots, it's important to put this up there.
"Besides, I think it is one of his funniest pieces. And at the same time, it goes into many of his major themes that show up later. If you know Shepard, you can smile along with him. If you don't know him, you are given a sampler of what he's become."
But even Fowler realizes how difficult "Mad Dog Blues" is. Because it can be confusing and seem self-indulgent, he offers this caveat to the audience:
"In many ways, it's a real dinosaur of a play. It's not streamlined. It's a fantasy that jumps from point to point and really doesn't make those points particularly clearly.
"It's more into textures and surfaces than anything else. But I really do think it is a good play. You'll know that he was very interested in rock, the drug culture and questions about what the artist is in our society."
"Mad Dog Blues" reads like a hodgepodge of schemes and ideas welded onto a strange tale of wandering. It focuses on Kosmo, a hard rocker, and his drug-dealing sidekick, Yahoodi, as they search for gold while learning their place in the world.
The journey takes them above the laws of time and space as they meet up with historic and mythic figures, including Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Janis Joplin, Jesse James, Captain Kidd and Paul Bunyon.
At UCI, Kosmo and Yahoodi's metaphysical ramblings are accompanied by a rock-country-folk musical score written by UCI student Peter Anthony and performed by a live band. The 11-member cast is made up entirely of UCI drama students.
Fowler said he regards interpreting such a meandering fable as a struggling look at "the American vision." Shepard was trying, in an admittedly clumsy way, to analyze cultural icons through two characters hoping to fulfill their lives, Fowler said. "It really focuses on American themes and American archetypes. It says a lot about life in this country, especially through the Hollywood vision.
"I think the central point is this search (by Yahoodi and Kosmo) for a vision they can use in their lives . . . something that will sustain them."
Although admiring much of "Mad Dog Blues," Fowler conceded that its weakest moment may be the ending, which he describes as unresolved. The original finale, sort of a redemptive sing-along involving all the characters, so nagged him and the cast that they decided to come up with an alternative.
Fowler asked the actors to write their own endings. He chose what he believes is the best, a "sharper focused" denouement crafted by Rob Kushell, who plays Jesse James.
Shepard's original will be played out every night, but Saturday's audience will also get to see Kushell's reworking of the final scene.
Fowler did not agree to the change lightly, he said, and normally would have rebelled against tampering with such a crucial moment in a Shepard play. A self-proclaimed Shepard zealot, he said he and the cast approached the project respectfully.
"I think Shepard will be remembered for a long time as one of the great playwrights during this era," Fowler said. "And we don't think Shepard would mind as long as we show his ending first. He might even like it, because there's more of a (dramatic) pay-off with it, at least that's how I see it."
"Mad Dog Blues" will be at UCI's Fine Arts Little Theatre at the southeastern end of the campus tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m. Information: (714) 856-4259 and (714) 865-5000.