An eagle dives out of the sky and picks up a tomcat in its talons. The two animals start ripping each other to shreds, but neither will let go--the eagle won't give up its prey; the tomcat knows he'll fall to his death. This familiar metaphor, which ends Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, perfectly circumscribes the playwright's take on our human condition: We are, all of us, starving beasts "fighting like crazy in the middle of the sky." It might also illuminate Shepard's pathological distaste for resolution; like a good Cold Warrior, he intuits that the elliptical logic of mutual assured destruction is preferable to the alternative.
Shepard, who managed to become one of America's preeminent playwrights without ever properly finishing a play, is probably best known for the surrealist Americana of Fool for Love and True West. Action and 4-H Club, the two early one-act plays now being presented by Arbor Heavy Theatre at the Loring Playhouse, are perhaps most interesting as rough sketches for these later works. In Action, directed by Rob Rachow, Shepard offers a glimpse of the sort of domestic stasis that pervades his mature plays: Four people with names like Jeep and Shooter smash things and scream at one another while making silly, absurdist proclamations like "Walt Whitman was a great man!" and "I've never been afraid of baths!" 4-H Club, while even less coherent, presages Shepard's use of violent anti-catharsis. Indeed, in its resolute formlessness, it resembles nothing so much as a psychotic episode. An astute pharmacist might prescribe a mild sedative on the evidence of Action, and an industrial-strength tranquilizer on that of 4-H Club. Any sort of analgesic would do nicely for the audience.
Even most good one-acts are like unfinished sentences: The playwright disgorges some inchoate notion, runs clean out of inspiration, and calls it a play. Action and 4-H Club, which are not good one-acts at all, leave Arbor Heavy's fine cast in the lurch when Shepard's wits leave him. At that point, the playwright's misanthropy devolves into a mini-orgy of destruction. Among the victims: two chairs, one turkey, one assiduously vivisected fish, some mice, and one audience's patience.
Two acts is one act too many in David Allen's Cheapside, now being given an almost undeservedly sensitive staging by Aurora Fire Theatre. Set in the grimy theatrical underworld of Elizabethan London, Cheapside inhabits the same Stoppardesque milieu as Shakespeare in Love (which it predates by a decade). Yet without the discursive wit of the latter, Allen manages only to suggest that hack writers, like the poor, will always be with us.
The hack in question is Robert Greene (Edwin Strout), a wheezy, besotted also-ran whose theater career is waning as those of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare wax (Mark Mattison plays both men in an inspired turn). The play begins promisingly enough, with Greene and Marlowe mocking an offstage rehearsal of Shakespeare's "documentary rubbish" (Henry IV). The Bard, as it turns out, is a bit of a careerist, who appropriates freely from his contemporaries. Greene is besieged by more pressing troubles; his libertine tastes and the upkeep of a mistress (Michaela Kallick) force him to produce inflammatory pamphlets designed to incite anti-Catholic fervor. Hanging around Greene's hovel, meanwhile, is Cutting Ball (Kevin Irvin), a bristling punk whose name refers to a penchant for performing nonelective surgery on his enemies.
The real trouble begins at intermission, however. If one were feeling generous, she might conjecture that the playwright suffered some sort of debilitating depressive episode halfway through the composition of Cheapside. Whatever the case, the light comedy of the first act turns without warning into anarchy in the U.K., punctuated by discordant bursts of Seventies punk. Marlowe gets a sword in his eye, Cutting Ball is strung up by the neck, London's theaters are closed, and Cheapside lurches toward its depressing denouement. As a portrait and an example of thwarted promise, Cheapside may ultimately evince the old Shakespearean adage that nothing is well begun except that which is well ended.
The Burning House Group, a local troupe whose rigorous philosophy of movement could get one arrested in China, has been working quietly on its latest production, WhirRLigig: Life and Perspective 101, for nearly two years. Based on the writings of Stephen Hawking and certain theories of quantum mechanics, the result asks (per the program notes) "What is REAlity and what is merely a POint of VieW...and is there really a DIFFerence?" along with other unNEcessarily CAPitalIZed QUESTions.
Chaos theory as applied to movement theater, in case you were wondering, hypothesizes that if you wear silly green jumpsuits and run around long enough, something entertaining will occur. The dramatis personae in this relatively comic comedy of relativity include an Electron (Matt Guidry), a Particle (Ally Baker), and Sound Waves played by musician Jeff Toffler. Guidry manages to generate some energy as the Electron, but Baker's Particle lacks weight, and Randal Berger as Dark Matter remains largely theoretical throughout.
I'm trying to be funny, by the way. I think the Burning House Group is too, although this remains a working hypothesis and has not been conclusively borne out by the data thus far collected.
Action and 4-H Club run through January 15 at the Loring Playhouse; (612) 333-2792.Cheapside runs through January 30 at the Cedar-Riverside People's Center; (612) 879-0577.WhirRLigig runs through January 31 at the Loring Playhouse; (612) 333-2172.