In the early 1970s, Sam Shepard was still deciding whether he was a playwright or a drummer, while Patti Smith was making the New York scene as a freelance rock journalist and songwriter, laying the groundwork for her future role as Godmother of Punk. Bam! They collided in the way young bodies who want to be somebodies do.
Before the end of the affair, the two shacked up in the Chelsea Hotel and wrote a play to perform together that mythologized their glorious wild selves. “We literally shoved the typewriter back and forth across the table,” Shepard has recalled of the show’s supposed two-night genesis.
Cowboy Mouth was the play, and Shepard apparently had second thoughts about airing his dirty laundry in public. After a dress rehearsal and a couple previews, he vanished – not back to his wife and infant child, though, but to hang out with his band, The Holy Modal Rounders. “[Shepard’s wife] didn’t know where Sam was and Patti kept coming to the theatre every night hoping he would show up,” recalls a contemporary in Don Shewey’s Shepard biography. “It was sad.”
This Cowboy Mouth creation myth is, in my estimation, of much more interest than the play itself, which holds about as much literary appeal as a waste basket full of used tissues and condoms.
Others disagree, and scrappy indie theatre company Heart in Hand is currently giving fans of Shepard and Smith a chance to investigate.
Fittingly, their production has a rock ’n’ roll gimmick: Jason Collett, singer-songwriter and member of Broken Social Scene, is debuting as an actor in the Shepard role, Slim, “a cat who looks like a coyote.” Heart in Hand co-founder Jessica Huras plays the Smith role, Cavale, “a chick who looks like a crow.” (Even those stage directions make me cringe.)
Slim and Cavale fight in a hotel room. She cuddles a dead bird, tells stories of dead French poets and alludes to bad experiences with psychiatrists and podiatrists. He kisses her feet, while struggling in not particularly original fashion with the fact that his wife has left him, taking their kid. (Yeah, sure – she left you.) Cavale wants to turn him into a “rock ’n’ roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth,” but he’s not so hot the idea.
Slim and Cavale’s affair is viewed through a bleak Beckettian lens. Like Waiting for Godot’s tramps, the lovers express the desire to leave, but never do – and play games (or instruments) to pass the time.
A third character is Lobster Man, a giant crustacean who pops up on stage in the middle, then again near the end, relieving the monotony as if Godot’s Pozzo and Lucky were substituted by the seafood special.
If this sounds like some sort of theatrical parody, it watches like one, too. Alas, Esther Jun’s production fails to find anything truthful buried in the blather. Huras rattles off her lines without giving them substantial subtext, or even any Manic Pixie Dream Girl charisma.
Under a long, stringy Kurt Cobain mop, Collett’s delivery is more rooted in reality, but he moves around like a giant noodle and affects an American accent that just sounds affected. He has real presence behind the drum set, or singing and strumming his guitar, however.
Amour fou certainly has its appeal, but I didn’t believe either the amour or the fou here. The whole thing felt phony-baloney, though, to be fair, the lobster was good.