Tony Frankel here, theatre critic for Stage and Cinema.
As impressed as I am with the commitment, passion and vision of the UC San Diego grads involved with the production of Sam Shepard’s existential one-acter COWBOYMOUTH, I found myself distracted – and ultimately exhausted – by the over-enthusiastic acting and direction. Shepard’s 1971 play is an autobiographical account of the brief and torrid affair he had with singer Patti Smith, who not only co-wrote the piece, but starred in the original production with Shepard himself. The play hit so close to home for Shepard, that he bolted after one performance to reunite with his wife.
COWBOYMOUTH is a brutal examination of an affair used as a tool to fill life’s eternal voids. The glaringly self-indulgent script vacillates between naturalism and poetry; it is filled with metaphors and symbols (such as a dead crow for a pet) which are generated from insider info that would go over the head of most audiences: One character is a Lobster Man, who is based on French Poet Gerard de Nerval’s pet lobster that he took for daily walks – Austin claims that she was born on the day that Nerval hung himself. Also, the title Cowboy Mouth is taken from a Bob Dylan song and Dylan lived at the Chelsea Hotel where the incendiary affair took place.
For the play to resonate as a theatrical experience, the actors – in this case, Justin O’Neill as Slim and Claire Kaplan as Cavale – need to do some seriously layered work. But the manic direction by Samuel Hunter kept the hard-working actors so busy, that internalized choices of character came off as an afterthought. As such, the vocal deliveries were often shrill: screaming does not intensify the language, it only serves to distance us from the absurdist/poetic dialogue. I’m shocked to see the word “nuance” used in some of the reviews on the Fringe Site, for the production, as a whole, had about as much nuance as a stampede.
The most interesting moments came when the dust settled and the actors caught their breath; both lead actors clearly have the ability to tap into their internal life, but their technique is way too raw, forced and unpolished. Certainly, there was some good work (especially Ms. Kaplan and the quiet intensity of Spencer Howard as the Lobster Man), but a violent production of a violent play in a tiny space only substantiates the notion of many an acting teacher: Keep it Simple.