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Stage – Fool For Love

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Val Landrum & Chris Harder

by Sam Shepard
October 16, 2009 through November 21, 2009

‘Fool for Love’ explodes with emotion at CoHo Theater

It might seem strange to think of a play that features just a few people in a seedy motel room as a spectacle. But however small the frame in which Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” unfolds, it’s an eye-popping display, full of little emotional explosions that illuminate the surrounding shadows of American myth. Clocking in at barely more than an hour, this taut one-act drama at CoHo Theater is, on the surface, a lovers’ joust between Eddie, a working cowboy, and May, a cook whose low-rent room on the edge of the Mojave Desert provides the decidedly unglamorous setting for them to rehash their on-off, obsessive, possessive, topsy-turvy thing.

On one level, this set-up is widely presumed to represent the end of Shepard’s marriage to actress O-Lan Jones and the beginnings of his relationship to the Oscar-winner Jessica Lange (May skewers Eddie for his involvement with a woman she derisively calls “the Countess”). In a looser metaphorical sense it also reflects the oft-noted motif of Shepard’s work, a lament for the faded Old West.

But this hardly is a well-made-play approach to these subjects. Thematic clarity, narrative plausibility, resolution — those aren’t priorities here. Shepard’s approach isn’t about a literary construct of meaning so much as image, emotion, impact. Amid the rocket-fueled push/pull of the relationship, feeling is truth, all the more so for its contradictions.

Eddie claims to have driven 2,480 miles to visit May. “Where were you, Katmandu or something?” she shoots back. Cleveland would be around the right milage, but the point isn’t how much Eddie did or didn’t drive, it’s what the probably hyperbolic number says about his passion. And are we really supposed to believe the Countess would follow him all those miles to spy on May’s room from her big, black Mercedes? Doesn’t matter, as long as we get the sense of people out past the frontiers of self-control.

As Eddie, Chris Harder dances through this minefield with a cowboy’s crooked gait and a crocodile grin, relishing his gamesmanship. He really captures Eddie’s combination of rough allure and sly menace in a performance that’s as unsettling as it is wonderful to watch. As May, Val Landrum lurches between despair over him and disdain for him, along the way shifting from frump to femme fatale to fighter. Tim Stapleton, best known as a scenic designer (and he’s nailed the cruddy details of the motel room, down to the cracked, dirt-streaked plaster) does terrific double duty here as an actor, by turns whimsical, proud and cranky as the Old Man, a sort of dream-like presence who speaks to both Eddie and May. And Spencer Conway, as May’s mild-mannered new suitor Martin, represents more rational modern ways with a kind of Clark Kent handsomeness and slight air of befuddlement.

Director Megan Kate Ward keeps it all hurtling forward with a crackling energy, but the production includes a few choices that feel like shortcuts. Shepard’s script makes much of the slamming of doors while Eddie and May argue their way around the apartment. On Stapleton’s wide-open set, Landrum and Harder look mighty odd hurling closed imaginary doors over and over. The choice for set simplicity also blurs the nature of the Old Man; having him sit right in the room with the others rather than on a separate platform does suggest what an essential presence he is in the lovers’ minds and lives, but it blunts the impact of the moment he stands up to insert himself more directly into the action.

Such quibbles aside, there’s a rich atmosphere to the production (credit to Stapleton’s set, Don Crossley’s expressive lighting and a few apt touches from sound designer Annalise Albright). Between that and the impact of its car-crash couple, there’s plenty here to keep making you sit up and pay attention. And what more can you ask from a spectacle.

Read more: Roles as lovers not much of a stretch for these Portland actors.

CoHo opens its fourteenth season with Fool for Love by Sam Shepard; a vicious, erotic and funny, tale set in a rundown hotel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert where Eddie and May fight tooth and nail to escape their catastrophic past.

Dark secrets are revealed in a haunting story of gripping jealousy, brutal betrayal, and the deepest kind of love. Told with reckless abandon and infinite care by one of America’s most renowned and audacious playwrights, Fool for Love is full of unforgettable images and heartbreaking truth.

Read a review.

Photo by Win Goodbody