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Review

Play it again, Sam Shepard Add to ...

Fool for Love

***

Written by Sam Shepard

Directed by Ted Dykstra

Starring Megan Follows and

Stuart Hughes

At Harbourfront Centre Theatre

Sam Shepard, the existential cowboy of American theatre, is back in the saddle and hitting the town. Admittedly, he's riding an old horse -- Fool for Love from 1983 -- but with Ted Dykstra in the director's chair and Megan Follows and Stuart Hughes in the lead, this Canadian welcome wagon is injecting new life into the playwright and his mode of transportation. So before we get all tangled in the nitty-gritty of this Soulpepper production, which opened Wednesday, let me get one sophisticated critical comment out of the way: Howdy, partners.

You can argue that this American-Canadian joint effort is just another connection in a play that relentlessly seeks to connect male and female, fantasy and reality, truth and lies. The two lovers who meet again (or more accurately, reconnect) in an old motel in the Mojave Desert are two halves that got split due to social and biological reasons.

May (Follows) is trying desperately to escape the all-consuming but noncommittal desires of Eddie (Hughes), but she can't or doesn't seem all that willing to. "You know we're connected, May. We'll always be connected. That was decided a long time ago," Eddie tells May as both keep hitting the physical and metaphorical walls of their motel room. The walls there don't have ears but are amplified -- nice sound design by John Gzowski -- to make each hit thunderously resonant. The incestuous nature of May and Eddie's relationship only affirms their entrapment within these No Exit-like walls.

Eddie's craving for connection with May is initially at odds with his wild-frontier, lonesome spirit -- complete with cowboy boots, lassos aplenty and a horse trailer parked outside the motel. But like the Marlboro Man, to whom May sarcastically compares him, Eddie is living a macho fantasy that, in contemporary America, only exists on billboards and in westerns.

Its last vestige is the dramatic-convention-breaking character of the Old Man (Frank Moore in a stunning performance), whose existence at the periphery of the stage and the story belies his importance to the lives of those front and centre. If the cowboy character is a case of reality turning to myth, the Old Man, as envisioned stylistically by Shepard, is mythology given a realistic twist. Without labouring the point, Dykstra's assured direction allows both worlds to co-exist and inform each other, bringing Shepard's undisciplined theatricality into full focus.

What sets Fool for Love apart from Shepard's earlier work is the space (emotional, physical and psychological) he has given to May. ("I wanted to try to take this leap into a female character, which I had never really done," Shepard said at the time.) If there's one thing to be said about Follows, it's that this petite actor can fill up large theatrical spaces or, as her TV career proves, revert to a smaller, quieter mode of performance. The May that Follows sustains for the play's 75-minute run draws on both ends of the acting game. She is gentle, even helpless, one minute and a kick-ass fighter the next. Throughout, Follows gives a performance of great emotional intelligence and considerable physical dexterity as well. You can feel that sexual torrent inside her that makes her a fool for love.

The same sexual fire also burns, if less palpably and consistently, in Hughes, a founding member of Soulpepper whose turn in last year's double bill of The Dumb Waiter and The Zoo Story was one of the season's highlights. Hughes and Follows are, incidentally, real-life partners who have been engaged for a number of years now, so any unevenness in the performances is not a case of missing chemistry. Rather, Hughes has not yet found what makes his character's emotional and sexual pleading so significant in a man who also guards his autonomy so jealously. No doubt, his performance of Eddie -- which itself is a performance of the wild cowboy of western legend -- will be refined as the run continues.

Still, it's as the bad boy mothers have warned their daughters about for centuries that he excels here. One look at him and you know that Martin, the hapless suitor who has come to take May to the movies (amiably and effectively played by Kevin Bundy), doesn't stand a ghost of a chance.

Finally, this production marks the welcome return of Follows to the Toronto stage, but it's also notable for giving us a chance to re-experience the work of Shepard, rarely produced professionally in our theatres. Here's hoping Soulpepper, which moves into year-long programming in 2006, will present more of his (and other contemporary American playwrights') works in their playbills. While America needs to understand the world around it better and with less jingoism, the world also needs to understand it, and Shepard's plays, with their dissection of the American Dream and recent mythology, are one way of doing just that.

Fool for Love runs in rep at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre until Oct. 1. $25-$51.50. Please visit for performance times or call 416-973-4000 for tickets.

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