Fool For Love
March 7 – 17, 2012
Seeing a recent production of one of Sam Shepard’s plays is always a fingers crossed experience for me. Not only do I adore his writing, but I’ve had the good fortune to have seen his plays staged by some of the best theatre companies,with some of the finest actors, in cities such as New York, Chicago and Toronto. In other words, my performance enjoyment benchmark is high. To stack the deck even further, Fool For Love, which won an Obie Award for writing and best new American play, is one of my favorite Sheppard stories, making any revival a potential minefield of disappointment. With all this in mind, the co-production of Sage Theatre and Shadow Theatre’s Fool For Love was a stronger show than I expected and a weaker one than I had hoped for in one particular area.
The one-act 60-ish minute story takes place in a motel room in the classic Shepard-esque environment of the mythic American West. The play opens with on-again/off-again lovers Eddie and May fighting, at times violently, in a manner that is quickly understood as their deep-routed pattern of toxic behaviour with each other. May accuses Eddie of having an affair with a wealthy woman and Eddie becomes enraged when he learns that May has a date coming over to pick her up that evening. Each character accuses the other of leaving the relationship and causing the separation. Eddie has driven over two thousand miles to see May again and rekindle the relationship and even though May knows his affections are as fleeting, she can’t help feeling drawn to him despite her anger.
During all this heated arguing, sitting just off the main stage, is an older man in a rocking chair watching the action unfold. Not simply content to sit and watch, he waits for pauses in the fighting to pipe in with a yarn about one of the two characters, sometimes talking directly to Eddie or May and at other times speaking to just himself. The stories he tells belie close family ties with both of the characters and it’s through his narrative that we first get an inkling of the true relationship between the pair.
It seems odd for me to worry about spoilers in this review seeing as this play has been widely discussed over the years. However in deference to those who don’t know the story, I will not ruin the surprise and instead simply say that the old man is not just a kooky theatrical add-on, but a device that helps reveal the story and brings much-needed context to the entire dynamic. It’s a car crash waiting to happen and when done well, the audience watches transfixed.
And there are several things that were done very well in this production. The set design, staging and acting of the three male characters were all impressive in a way that made the Sam Shepard fan-girl in me swell with pride. Fool For Love is best played out on a small, suffocating set that highlights the uncomfortable relationship between Eddie and May, the ease in which their fighting can turn violent and the ghost-like proximity of the old man on the side of the stage. Terry Gunvordahl’s run down motel gave us the perfect claustrophobic atmosphere inside the room while large slatted and venetian blind windows gave an eerie view to the outside world.
John Hudson’s direction of the fight scenes between Eddie and May were deftly orchestrated allowing for real rough play and the tension it caused onstage. Too often directors will dial back the corporeal aggression in order to safeguard their actors. I always find this cautious approach to be at the expense of the believability of the action. But Hudson allowed his characters to punch and kick and wrestle so much so that not only did the actors work up a sweat but the audience had no doubt that the hostility onstage was integral and honest.
But by far the thing that impressed me the most about this production were the performances given by Shaun Johnson as the Old Man, David MacInnis as Eddie and Kevin Rothery as Martin, May’s date. All three actors played remarkably different men, but each one brought a naturalness to his role that made the “acting’ disappear and the character emerge as fully formed. Johnson’s Old Man evoked a Sam Elliot type of Western cool that was at times enchanting and amusing. MacInnis showed great prowess at keeping the energy high and the nasty side of Eddie right on the surface waiting to boil over. Yet in a surprising turn, it was Rothery playing the small role of May’s date Martin that undoubtedly stole the show. Playing naïve, meek and clueless can easily descend into cliché, but Rothery instead delivered a nuanced performance that was uniquely authentic with spot-on quiet timing that I found as exciting as the loudest roars in the production.
Jamie Konchak as May provided the only weak spot in the show and was at times the disappointment that I feared. It’s a tough role to play, going from calm one minute to outraged, then frenetic, then vulnerable and back again all within three or four lines. Unfortunately Konchak wasn’t able to make those transitions fluidly and instead gave us a jerky performance where both her body language/movement and her emotional range felt stiff and forced. Juxtaposed against the ease of her male counterparts, Konchak’s labours seemed even more pronounced. Things got better for her as the play went on and she did deliver some lovely scenes in the process. Her speech about detesting Eddie and then hating him more for making her hate him was a lovely piece of acting as was her final scene when she reveals her side of the secret behind the relationship. But despite these moments, Konchak lost me overall in the engagement with May and the play was the poorer for the loss.
So it wasn’t a perfect production of Fool For Love. But there were near perfect elements in this performance that kept this Shepard fan very pleased. Hats off to Sage and Shadow for a pleasant surprise and giving Calgarians a compelling reason to revisit this play.
For the guys and the girls – If you haven’t had a toxic relationship you probably know of one. Fool For Love is a modern western where there are no good guys or bad guys, just lots of wounded people shooting emotional bullets. If nothing else, it will make your dating or married life seem like a breeze. SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – Shepard doesn’t write for a mainstream audience. He’s not all that concerned with robust storytelling or entertainment. The twist in the play is somewhat disturbing and the use of the Old Man may feel out-of-place to you. SKIP IT
For the theater junkie – Despite the one weakness, this adaptation does the original performance proud on many levels. A great story with some great acting. SEE IT