Bristling with youthful experimentation, "The Shepard Project: The Early Works of Sam Shepard" at City Garage gives a fascinating glimpse into Shepard's artistic progression. For anyone not a die-hard Shepard fan, however, the works are limited in scope and execution, punk playlets by an unformed writer who had not yet found his voice, performed by actors not always sure of theirs.
The characters in all four pieces are emotionally isolated losers with elemental longings--for the sea, for the sky, for the wide open spaces of the American West. The opener, "Chicago," ably helmed by Frederique Michel, is essentially an absurdist monologue delivered in a bathtub (or perhaps it is a docked boat) by a heavily tattooed man (Stephen Pocock) whose lover (Liz Davies) is leaving him.
The most wickedly funny piece of the evening, "4-H Club," directed by Pocock, concerns three hormonally fueled young men (Carlos Alvarado, Paul Rubenstein and Shan Serafin) who share the unfettered destructive capacity of children. These guys are geniuses at smashing things, but when it comes to anything constructive--like picking up their mosh pit of an apartment--they are helpless.
Michel also directs "Icarus's Mother," in which a quintet of holiday picnickers (Jeff Boyer, Andrea Isco, Raquel Silva, Jeff Decker and Alvarado) play twisted mind games until interrupted by a spectacular air disaster. Evocative of Ambrose Bierce, "Killer's Head," the closer, also staged by Michel, features F. Scott Collins as a condemned cowboy who dreams of the open range in the moments before his electrocution. The metal headgear Collins wears entirely obscures his eyes--a serious shortcoming in a one-character play. Otherwise, Charles A. Duncombe Jr.'s austere production design is highly effective.
* "The Shepard Project: Early Works by Sam Shepard," Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5:30 p.m. Through May 2. City Garage, 1340 1/2 (alley) 4th St., Santa Monica. (310) 319-9939. $20. Running time: 2 hours.