I had never read or seen a Sam Shepard play before this one, which, considering I received an undergraduate theatre education from an American institution, seems like an enormous oversight on someone’s part.
This might be my program bio if I had worked on Facility Theatre’s production of Fool for Love; in place of the usual laundry list of credits and general excitement to work with [insert theatre company here], this program’s bios include personal histories of Sam Shepard’s work, and of Fool for Love in particular, as well as quotes from Shepard himself. This approach is more interesting and informative than the typical formula, and it connected the performers and production team to the text in a much more personal and intimate way. It also helped set the tone for the performance; I walked into the theater with visions of devouring Shepard’s canon in just two days (like Darren Hill) and bursting into unexpected tears while performing it (like Tiffany Bedwell), and also with the stark reminder that I had none of that connection to the work. I was a first-time Shepard viewer; all I knew was that he was one of the Great American Playwrights and had passed away only recently.
I’ll admit that I was not initially impressed. A heterosexual couple with a complicated history, alternating between arguments and professions of true love? Been there, done that. I drew the same conclusion fifteen minutes into May and Eddie’s arguing as I do with all such storylines: she should definitely dump him. The main thing that struck me as different about Shepard’s work was the explosiveness of the characters’ emotions and the rapid pace at which they swapped between amorous and acrimonious. Is this all this is going to be? I began to wonder.
No, it isn’t, the play seemed to answer. The introduction of the Old Man, who made his entrance before top of show by climbing over audience members in the most inconsiderate way possible to get to his seat, from which he speaks his first lines. This blocking choice by director Zeljko Djukic is subtly clever; it reveals the Old Man’s lack of concern for other people before we’re even introduced to him, and it makes it immediately clear, once he does start speaking, that he exists outside the realistic world of the play.
The set design is inextricable from the storytelling; simple though it is, it captures both the realistic details of a cramped motel room and the spirit of the desert landscape, while at the same time leaving room for symbolic meaning and interesting blocking choices. Actor Tiffany Bedwell has pointed out the significance of the onstage bathroom—a place where May often retreats in emotional moments, the bathroom’s visibility to the audience ensures a richer life for her character. May is ongoing, even when she leaves the main space, and it’s this sort of adjustment, as well as Bedwell’s powerful stage presence, that shifts this otherwise male-driven text into something more empathetic to women. Does it transform the piece into a feminist manifesto? No. But it does allow May more fullness of character and helps the production avoid the misogyny that might easily emerge from this text in different hands.
With the introduction of the ghostly Old Man, the revelation of the true relationship between the two protagonists, and the entrance of outsider Martin (played with charming sincerity and bemusement by Darren Hill), the romantic tragedy of Eddie and May transforms into something more fascinating, more mysterious than the typical straight-people-fighting narrative, enhanced by ambient sound by Jeffrey Levin, which brings the eerie, mystifying emptiness of the desert into the theatre space. It becomes a story both engaging and troubling, the sort of thing that haunts your daydreams instead of vanishing quickly from your memory.
Fool for Love is Facility Theatre’s first production, and I have to say they are off to a great start. Although producing Sam Shepard is hardly a risky choice, there is something genuinely fresh in this production that hints at an exciting future for the company. I look forward being surprised by them again.
Location: Chopin Theatre Studio, 1543 W. Division, Chicago
Dates: October 12 – November 12, 2017
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm
Tickets: $22.09 general admission. For tickets, call 312.391.1385 or visit the Facility Theatre website.
All photos by Leslie Schwartz Photography.