Chloe Bell, Noah Park, & Aaron Roitman in Cowboy Mouth. Photo by Ben Park
By Sam Shepard
Directed by Ben Park
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Cowboy Mouth is a play by Sam Shepard, but its history is particularly fascinating. Purportedly co-written in a feverish few days with poet and rock musician Patti Smith at a time when Shepard was separated from his first wife, the piece is the most nakedly biographical material in his career. It is, in fact, widely seen as a confessional. Its premiere performance was by Shepard and Smith themselves and Shepard fled the production after opening night with nary a word of explanation.
It also is an early manifestation of the cowboy/outlaw/rock star image that is key to any study of Shepard’s work, yet the language feels as much Patti Smith. Technically, Shepard is credited as the sole author, but Smith’s contribution has never been questioned, and it is hard not to imagine her dominance when watching the play. The woman, Cavale, played here by Chloe Bell, exercises a certain amount of control over Slim, played by Aaron Roitman, even holding a gun on him in one scene. The two are shut up together in a debris-strewn hotel room (the play was written in Smith’s room at the legendary Chelsea Hotel), speaking in manic, frenzied dialogue, doggerel, and poetry. A fantastical figure called The Lobsterman (Noah Park) loiters about the stage providing some musical accompaniment on banjo and electric guitar. When Slim sings “Have No Fear”, director Ben Park seems to deliberately echo Patti Smith’s early rock songs.
That the play was born of sleepless nights questioning one’s place in the world is evident in the effusive but unfocused stream-of-consciousness spoken word poetry. It is a post-Beat sensibility that feels more Smith than Shepard, and it betrays a degree of youthful self-indulgence that we don’t find in the later work of either artist. Slim and Cavale are fluid in their identity, with no small amount of transference, so that who is in control of the situation at any given instant shifts dramatically moment by moment. Supposedly Cavale has abducted Slim at gunpoint, but the action opens with a pointed balance of introduction for each character, and that ambivalence in the relationship carries through the play.
Bell and Roitman work hard to capture the ill-defined narrative with energy and technical prowess that is to be celebrated, but both cut glowing profiles of well-scrubbed youth that feels far removed from the anarchic gutter denizens that must have been the original conception. It pushes the play away from the vulgar, confrontational tone conjured by the liberal overuse of “fuck” in the opening lines into a more abstract territory. The two actors give smart, committed performances, relishing the taste of the headlong rush of language, yet the shine of their energy feels anachronistic for the text. Between the two, Bell perhaps comes closest to realizing the heart of the piece, her shapeless black dress a textually accurate costume that is properly evocative.
Still, this Cowboy Mouth is a treasure, a rarely produced play that illustrates a key moment in the development of one of the most important American playwrights of our time. The foundation of Shepard’s more crucial, later plays is present here: questions of identity and influence, and the Walden Theatre Alumni Company continues its important role in covering the edgier, more experimental ground in the larger landscape of the Commonwealth Theatre Center (formerly Walden Theatre + Blue Apple Players).
Performed in repertory with The Aliens by Annie Baker
Cowboy Mouth July 18, 19, 21 @ 7:30pm
The Aliens July 20 @ 7:30pm, July 22, 23 @ 9:15pm
Walden Theatre Alumni Company
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1125 Payne Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40206
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.