“Something’s been coming to me lately about this whole question of being lost,” Shepard wrote to Joseph Chaikin in 1983 from Iowa, where he was shooting the film Country with Jessica Lange. “It only makes sense to me in relation to an idea of one’s identity being shattered under severe personal circumstances -- in a state of crisis where everything that I’ve previously identified with in myself suddenly falls away. A shock state, I guess you might call it. I don’t think it makes much difference what the shock itself is -- whether it’s a trauma to do with a loved one or a physical accident or whatever -- the resulting emptiness or aloneness is what interests me. Particularly to do with questions like home? family? the identification of others over time? people I’ve known who are now lost to me even though still alive?”

At the time, Shepard was simply staking out the territory he and Chaikin would explore in their third collaboration, The War In Heaven. Yet that one letter alone contains seeds -- especially the brooding about identity -- that would eventually bear fruit in his subsequent plays A Lie of the Mind, States of Shock, Simpatico, the overhauled Tooth of Crime (subtitled “Second Dance”), and When the World Was Green (A Chef’s Fable), a collaboration with Chaikin commissioned for the Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta in 1996.

The two characters in Green are an old man on death row for murder and a young woman who comes to interview him for a newspaper story. “How did all this begin?” she asks. “There was an insult 200 years ago,” he says. Because of this insult seven generations back, the Old Man’s father pointed out to him when he was five years old the cousin it was his duty to kill. The Old Man tracked his cousin Carl for many yeas, became head chef of his favorite restaurant in New Orleans and finally posioned his potatoes. According to the Interviewer, however, it was a case of mistaken identity: instead of his cousin, the Old Man killed someone who may or may not have been the Interviewer’s long-lost father.

Much abuot the play is left purposely mysterious and open-ended. Where does this story take place? Some references are clearly American and some are not. The word “Bosnia” is never spoken, but a viewer in 1996 couldn’t help thinking about the genocidal “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia when watching a play about a generations-old conflict whose roots can only be described as mythological. The Beckett-like setting (a simple prison cell, a gray slate wall, a single high window) and the interrogatory format are recognizable trademarks from Chaikin’s theatre background. Meanwhile, the themes and imagery -- that ancient curse, the male-female standoff, the search for the father, the echo of old folk ballads -- seem like pure Shepard.

When the World Was Green is the first of the Shepard-Chaikin collaborations that Chaikin did not perform himself, which was too bad. Alvin Epstein, a veteran actor whose credits include the American premieres of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, gave an overemphatic, disconnected performance that made this brief play seem tedious and overlong. I couldn’t help pining for the light touch and poetic reverie Chaikin might have summoned, before a series of strokes made performing all but impossible for him.....

The Tooth of Crime has always been the most dazzling and well-regarded of Shepard’s pre-family plays. A lethal showdown between two killer rock stars, it is an unconventional hybrid of play and musical, and its dense patches of invented pop-culture neo-lingo (part computerspeak, part hipster jive, part sci-fi comic book) make it both challenging and fun to undertake. Producers had been after Shepard for years to get permission to revive The Tooth of Crime. The playwright resisted because he felt it needed a new musical score and he couldn’t decide who should do it. Suddenly in 1995, he settled on T-Bone Burnett, a former member of Bob Dylan’s band, as his composer of choice.

Shepard’s new version of The Tooth of Crime differed so drastically from the original that he gave it a new name Tooth of Crime (Second Dance). For one thing, he ruthlessly cut anything that made the play seem dated, including almost all references to sports cars and rock music idols (Dylan, Jagger, Townshend) as well as two of the most memorable set-pieces from the original play, Hoss’s reminiscence of a high-school rumble as class warfare and Becky’s rape-scene soliloquy. He’d stripped the text of most curse words and renamed several of the characters. Hoss’s sidekick Cheyenne had become Chaser, the jive DJ Galactic Jack was called Ruido Ran, and Star-Man was now Meera (a reference, perhaps, to the Indian-born spiritual teacher Mother Meera). In a hundred large and small ways, he’d made the play leaner and meaner. As producer Carole Rothman explained, “The focus of the play has shifted. There was always a fine line between whether it was really about rock-and-roll or really about killing. Now it’s gone over the line toward killing.”

Ultimately, the new Tooth of Crime became more about dying than killing. The play originally wielded its peculiar babel of pop-culture jargons as an atttack on the contemporary fixation on style and media image. Shepard’s rewrite pushed farther into the metaphysical realm. It became about the death of the Self, about transcending identity altogether. The climax of the play is still the second-act showdown between Hoss, the reigning star “Marker” (whatever mixture of rocker and killer Shepard means that to be), and Crow, his upstart challenger. But in this version, the referee bails after the first round, unable to make sense of the strange moves he’s witnessing. After the referee’s exit, the duel suddenly shifts into almost mystical territory. It conjures up all the alter-ego conflicts that inhabit Shepard’s plays (Austin and Lee circling each other at the end of True West, for instance). Crow hypnotizes Hoss into a kind of shamanic trance. Instead of viewing Crow as the enemy to be slaughtered, Hoss suddenly sees him as a mirror. He recognizes in Crow a younger version of himself, consumed with jockeying for status, blazing new fashion trails, and trashing the past -- overgrown adolescent antics that seem empty now to Hoss. He realizes that smashing the mirror won’t kill the image. If he wants to get rid of the thing he hates, he has to turn the knife on him (his self?).

In the original version, Hoss’s suicide was a defiant act, even noble, but undeniably an admission of defeat. His former colleagues rallied around Crow as the new champion and prepared to play the game all over again. In Tooth of Crime (Second Dance), Hoss dies from his own knife rather than a gunshot. And like the Samurai warrior’s hara-kiri, it comes across as a spiritual triumph. It’s a relief to leave behind the exhausting game of images. Hoss is liberated in the way that Buddhist philosophy defines liberation: recognition that nothing is permanent, that human experience leads to suffering and there there is no individual self. Escaping from the cycle of death and rebirth, ignorance and illusion -- what the Buddhists call samsara -- leads to nirvana. Hoss collapses on the floor in the same outline that shows up on the floor in Shepard’s 1976 play Suicide in B-Flat, where it represents the last earthly trace of Niles, who wanders through that play unseen, like a soul after death.

These elements may have lurked somewhere under the surface of the original Tooth of Crime. In his 1996 revision, Shepard succeeded in drawing out these philosophical concerns with identity and self-transcendence that place the play on a continuum with his other work rather than off in its own rock-musical corner. However, the new version acquired some literary depth at the expense of its theatricality. Without the topical references to hook the audience and make the world of the play seem fun or at least dazzling to encounter, Tooth of Crime became heavier, more somber, certainly less of a crowd-pleaser. The production in New York bombed with critics and audiences. Many nights, more than half the audience streamed out of the theatre at intermission, never to return.

The best thing about the production was T-Bone Burnett’s score, a vast improvement over Shepard’s original music. Burentt’s witty, spring-loaded lyrics meshed well with Shepard’s made-up argot. “Somebody’s got to monitor all this darkness darkness darkness,” Hoss sings. “Somebody’s got to locate the bomb -- dot com.” And two lyrical numbers in the first act eerily captured the clock-stopping quality of a drug-induced reverie, especially “Kill Zone” (co-written with Roy Orbison). During early previews, the show knocked the audience back in their seats with a blast of grunge-rock that seemed to link Hoss to Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, charismatic icons of ‘90s rock. By opening night, the opening number had been transformed into a cool blues delivered like beatnik poetry -- theatrically more inviting though oddly anachronistic....

Only after seeing the show twice and reading the text, with its veiled references to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, did I begin to understand what was at stake in the showdown between Hoss and Crow. Perhaps the set was not just the throne room of a raock star’s castle but some version of a bardo, one of the stages between death and rebirth in Tibetan teachings. Of course, I may be reading into the play a more specifically Buddhist interpretation than Shepard meant for it to have. Nonetheless, it seems clear to me that the play addresses identity-shift as a profoundly spiritual crisis in a way that the New York production failed even to suggest.

As a longtime student and fan of Shepard’s work, I’ve always been intrigued by the hints of mysticism in his plays. Beneath their surface reality, Shepard often uses the elements of theatre to explore (if obliquely) the life of the soul that escapes intellectual perception or material presentation. And I’m repeatedly frustrated at the slack, flat slavishly naturalistic productions his plays get, even when Shepard himself is directing. Admittedly, it’s difficult to communicate a spiritual perspective in the theatre without getting too pious or pretentious. But the greatest theatremakers of our time achieve nothing less in their best work -- whether it’s Peter Brook or Elizabeth LeCompte or JoAnne Akalaitis or Robert Lepage. With the exception of Joe Chaikin, none of them, and no directors like them, seem to take any interest in Shepard.

At least in his home country. European directors seem less invested in handcuffing Shepard to naturalistic theatre. Imaginative design choices are always a simple way of churning up submerged, less-than-obvious resonances in a strong text. At a 1993 conference on Shepard in Brussels, the German director-dramaturg team of Hartmut Wickert and Alfred Nordmann gave a fascinating paper about their production of States of Shock at Stadttheater Konstanz. Intrigued by Shepard’s account in the Village Voice of the play’s genesis as a response to the Persian Gulf War, they decided that this interpretation was too narrow to interest a European audience. Taking inspiration from Jack’s Gelbert’s 1976 essay on Shepard called “The Playwright a sShaman,” Wikcert and Nordmann conceived States of Shock -- ostensibly an absurdist one-act about a retired military man and a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet terrorizing an elderly couple and an inept waitress in a roadside diner -- as a shamanic session in which urgently needed healing energy arrives not as the gentle, beneficent “white light” of New Age visualizations but in the raging, disruptive form of a “monster-fascist.”

Judging from the scene they showed on videotape, their production was extraordinary to look at. The director had gotten permission to incorporate into the set replicas of sculptures by two prominent contemporary American artists -- Edward Kienholz’s The Portable War Memorial and Bruce Naumann’s take-off on roadside diner signage, a neon sign that latnerately flashes “EAT” and “DEATH.” The show also included lots of music in addition to two live drummers, stylized choreography and meticulous lighting a la Robert Wilson. It seemed like the most exciting directorial approach to staging Shepard that I’d ever seen. When I raved about it to Nordmann (who teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina), he cautioned me to remember that the long European rehearsal periods militate against the thing that’s best about American productions of Shepard: fresh, spontaneous acting. It’s true that Shepard’s plays are ideal opportunities for the kind of woolly, uninhibited acting Americans are known for. Still, I want it all. I long for productions that feature not just sizzling performances but also a bolder theatricality that taps into the poetic soul of the plays.

When Shepard created the original Tooth of Crime, he was experiencing the second big identity shift of his life. The first happened when he left his family home in California as Steve Rogers and arrived in New York calling himself Sam Shepard. Then after eight years of intense creative discovery, fame, glory, social entree and consumption of pharmaceuticals, he pulled up stakes and moved to London, to begin a new life as a husband and father. The Tooth of Crime is in some ways a “look back in horror” at the excesses of his life in New York. You could say it’s about realizing that the things you wanted so desperately when you were 22 seem unimportant, if not tacky, by the time you turn 30. In a larger sense, the play penetrates an essential truth about the increasingly celebrity-fixated media-culture that America has foisted on the world. Hoss thinks he got to the top through sheer talent; his encounter with Crow reveals the sickening reality that a “Star” is just another consumer commodity, a role American culture always wants someone to play, and it scarcely matters who.

Twenty-some years and a few identity shifts later, Shepard’s rewrite of Tooth of Crime rings some new variations on this theme whose implications are both more personal and more universal. He’s less interested in love-hating the notion of media stardom and more curious about identity shift as psychic suicide. In fact, you could say he’s obsessed with this theme. His 1993 play Simpatico seems rather dull and cryptic on the most literal level. It re-enacts the kind of identity exchange between a successful guy and his lowlife alter-ego that occurs in True West, only this time in the milieu of horse racing rather than moviemaking. But there is something mysterious going on underneath the surface. In a New York Times interview, Shepard hinted as much when he said, “Identity is a question for everybody in the play. Some of them are more firmly aligned with who they are, or who they think they are. To me, a strong sense of self isn’t believing in a lot.” At the end of the play, the slippery character Vinnie seems to thrive specifically because he doesn’t cling to a set identity, and despite his Rolex and cel phone, Carter seems to be dying because he does.

In Tooth of Crime (Second Dance), Shepard comes closer to saying that out loud. As Hoss approaches his moment of transcendence and starts to see things no one else onstage can, he says,

      No, look! Right here it comes! Emergence. I see him now. A true killer. True to his heart. True to his voice. Whole. Unshakable. There! See? He’s coming out! Right toward me now. There! Steppiing out! A body as sure as you or me. See? Identity!

When Hoss kills himself, is he shuffling off one identity for another, or is he abandoning altogether the notion of identity as a solid state? Is “the idea of one’s identity being shattered” a tragedy or a cause for celebration, or both? I guess this is the essential mystery of the play, and like all mysteries meant to be witnessed rather than explained.

It’s not surprising that Shepard should dwell on the dance of identity in his plays. His life history pushes those buttons: He’s both Steve Rogers and Sham Shepard, he’s achieved fame and fortune as both a playwright and movie actor, he’s fathered children by two different women. How do these complex realities intertwine for him, or any of us? These are typical burning questions of midlife as well. Shepard’s recent plays seem to leap off from the famous opening lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.” And questions of identity inevitably inspire meditations on mortality. “Who am I after I die?” is no more or less mysterious than “Who am I before I die?”

American Theatre, July/August 1997

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