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OCC Keeps Watch Over Shepard's Flock

August 01, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Sam Shepard has always enjoyed passing off the idea that he picked up writing plays the way other guys pick up a guitar: out of boredom. As though it just seemed like the thing to do.

However (and truer to a sense of Shepard as considerable artist), the first play he read from cover to cover was Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," the masterpiece of absurdist theater.

The link between the absurdists and Shepard shows up immediately in "Killer's Head," one of seven short plays by Shepard alternating nightly through Sunday at Orange Coast College, home to what easily is one of Orange County's most serious and successful college theater units (and which--coincidentally?--recently gave us an absurdist theater festival).

Mazon (Brian Callaway), the unlucky single character in "Killer's Head," is strapped into an electric chair. Like so many of Beckett's tragicomic characters, he is alone in a black, uncaring universe; his running thoughts make up the only real world he has. Sitting upright in the oversized chair, he even looks a little like Nagg in Beckett's "Endgame."

Nagg, though, rules his own roost. Mazon is about to get zapped. He thinks about the horse he dreams of purchasing; he considers a trip over the Grapevine to Bakersfield. Callaway, under Todd Veneman's taut direction, gets us so worked up over Mazon's thoughts that when the execution comes, it literally is a shock.

"Red Cross," which followed on last Saturday's bill, is an early, deeply original piece with hints here and there of Jean Genet. (OCC's absurdist festival included Genet's "The Maids.") In an all-white cottage in the woods, Carol (Amanda Macadam) tells Jim (Mark Coyan) how she imagines her head exploding while she is skiing downhill. Jim, on the other hand, is imagining the crabs, which, he is convinced, are eating him alive.

When Carol also complains of crabs, "Red Cross" escalates quickly into a metaphor for millennial destruction and is perhaps more potent now than when first done 30 years ago.

The finale on last Saturday's bill, "Cowboy #2" (so-called because it is a rewrite of "Cowboy," which has been lost) linked "Killer's Head" and "Red Cross." Like Mazon, Chet (Veneman) and Stu (Michael Rinke) are stuck in the modern world and imagine themselves as cowboys. Like the characters in "Red Cross," they exist to perform for each other.

Shepard takes both those components to the hilt here in very compressed time, as big Chet and little Stu jump from their posts as construction workers into florid fantasies of being on the range and battling Indians.

As the man and woman who come on and mechanically recite the script's previous dialogue--thus killing the performance just as much as the volts kill Mazon--E.A. Hamme and Jami McCoy aren't as scary as they should be. It's one of the few miscues in a smart, skilled retrospective of a writer whose early work remains amazingly potent.

The other plays in the Shepard festival are "Fourteen Hundred Thousand," "Shaved Splits," "Cowboy Mouth" and "Savage/Love," co-written by Joseph Chaikin.

* The Sam Shepard Short Play Festival, Orange Coast College, Drama Lab Studio, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends Sunday. Bills change and running time varies nightly. $5. (714) 432-5932.

"Killer's Head"

Brian Callaway: Mazon

Directed by Todd Veneman. Lights: Jamie Sweet.

*

"Red Cross"

Amanda Macadam: Carol

Mark Coyan: Jim

Shannon C.M. Flynn: Maid

Directed by Kelly Flynn. Lights: Jamie Sweet. Sound: Kimberly Fisher.

*

"Cowboy #2"

Todd Veneman: Chet

Michael Rinke: Stu

E.A. Hamme: Man

Jami McCoy: Woman

Directed by Rick Golson. Lights: Jamie Sweet.

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