REVIEW: The Fallen Hero, The Women, And The Problem Of Passion In ACT’s FOOL FOR LOVE

Published on August 8, 2017 by   ·   No Comments

Fool 04

Synchronicity can be a real bitch.

Prepping for another trip to Seattle, I of course popped over to the ACT website to see if there were any shows running.  I saw that two shows were closing the night after I flew in: Alex and Aris, a new play about the 4-year friendship between Alexander the Great and Aristotle, and Fool For Love, a lab theatre show written by Sam Shepard.  The latter sounded dark and challenging and right up my alley, so I bought the ticket.

The next day, I saw a post on Facebook announcing that Sam Shepard had died of complications from ALS.


Great.  I guess I did that ice bucket challenge for nothing.

If the tenor of that joke makes you uncomfortable, it gives you a sense of the complex feelings evoked by the not-quite 90 minutes of this fast-paced and brutal play (and trust that it’s told out of deep love and admiration for a wonderful talent).

Here’s a rundown of the plot (the show first premiered in 1983 but I guess if you need a “spoiler alert” for 34-year-old plays, this would be it):

Fool 01Eddie (Andrew Shanks) has tracked May (Pilar O’Connell) to a shabby motel.  They’ve been on-again, off-again lovers for some time, and Eddie has come to take her back with him.  May is resisting but unable to make him or even let him actually walk away.  The Old Man (Paul Shapiro), a ghostlike figure, hovers near them, sometimes taunting, sometimes placating.  The cast is rounded out by Martin (Kevin Kelly), a rather square young man who has started seeing May; he has come to pick her up for a pleasant evening at the movies, but can’t seem to look away from the unfolding emotional carnage around him.

At first it seems to be a rather trite love triangle: May, the unstable young woman, torn between the loutish bad boy who is obviously no good for her but for who she burns, and the sweet, passionless nerd who treats her well and says all the right things but can’t possibly ignite her desires.  But Shepard throws us a curve: May and Eddie are half-sister and brother, and the Old Man is their father.

And here is where the conflict arises between the consummate and entertaining performances of the actors and the boundaries of the world they find themselves in: so often in art and, I would argue, in life, the violence perpetrated against women and their suffering becomes a lens through which men can see and examine some piece of their emotional landscape.

001In horror, the women become monsters: think of the real Mrs. Bates in Psycho or Regan in The Exorcist, stretching all the way back to versions of Medusa in both Greek and Egyptian mythology.  The drama, they become broken figures, victims, like May clutching Eddie’s legs in a dirty motel room.  “You’re going to erase me,” she says to him, and in a way he does: the revelation of the Old Man’s affairs are mostly told from his perspective as he recounts to Martin the night he walked through a field with his father to the home of his father’s other family, seeing his half-sister who has already long been his first (and perhaps only) great love.

May fares better than the other women in the story in that she actually appears on stage and she gets to control some of the narrative.  “The Countess,” some celebrity Eddie has been seeing arrives at the motel and wreaks havoc, shattering Eddie’s windshield with a gun before crashing into it and setting in on fire.  She is a destructive and malevolent force but never actually appears except as a pair of headlights mounted cleverly on a small mobile cart, creating the illusion of a car driving up to the motel and shining its lights through the window.

When May finally intervenes and takes over the narrative from Eddie, she reveals that once her mother finally tracked down the Old Man and his other family, she confronted Eddie’s mother – and was answered with a gunshot to the head.

No one in this play leaves unscathed, but you can’t help but notice that while Eddie is off fingering pseudo-royalty and traipsing around the country with a trailer full of horses from the rodeo circuit, May is withering in this dingy room, thinking about the fate of both of their mothers who receive barely a mention.

In his program notes, director Alex Bodine said this:

Fool 05I don’t know if it’s because the conversation is too hot to touch, but if that’s the case, then my next thought will be unpopular: Sam Shepard wrote a play about gaslighting.  He made a play about trying to overwrite someone’s story/experience; about controlling their narrative in order to keep them in doubt of their own sanity/perception of the violence that is being enacted upon them.

I agree with Bodine, and the story that is being overwritten isn’t just May’s or her mother’s, it is also that of the Countess, and Eddie’s mother, and finally even Eddie himself.  Not Martin’s story, of course – he barely exists as more than a convenience, a plot device to make Eddie seem that much more appealing and to occasion the telling of his story.

No, in the end the only story that matters is that of the Old Man, the man who justifies his philandering with this glib gem: “It was the same love, just split in two.”  When faced with the devastation he was brought to so many lives, he throws up his hands as if blameless: “Your mother wouldn’t give it up, would she?  She drew me to her…How could I turn down someone who loved me like that?”

Fool 03When May takes over telling the story and Eddie allows it, the Old Man is enraged – “I want to hear the male side of this thing!  You gotta represent me!”  But that’s the problem, isn’t it: the whole goddamn thing is the male side of it, first Eddie and then the Old Man.  The play ends with the Old Man alone – May, Eddie, and finally Martin have all exited the room; somewhere between laughing and crying, gesturing to an imaginary picture of Barbara Mandrell the Old Man declares, “That’s the woman of my dreams.  And she’s mine.  Mine!  Forever!”

And perhaps that moment, that final climax, is where we get a nugget of truth: when we treat people as conveniences and use their devotion to us to excuse our shoddy treatment of them, in the end we are left with nothing but our own selfish illusions.  Illusions, and a story that may excite and titillate, but never truly touch.

For all of the missed opportunities to present more facets of this compelling story, there is still some interesting exploration of problematics passions, and the perspective (which some might consider a bit dated) is free from our current climate that does give more space for victim’s of violence to tell their stories and own their own narratives but which tends to speak of love and passion and violence in reductive and ultimately not very useful ways.  After all, if you can set aside the scandalous nature of their attraction for one another, it is clear that there is real, genuine passion between Eddie and May; it is equally obvious that Martin, perfectly groomed and polite Martin, is a terrible match for this wild spirit.  But we live in a world which likes to cleanly divide people into perps and victims, a division that means little to the intense passions that exist between people, however unhealthy they might be.

The play brought to mind Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie” featuring Rihanna not long after she became, without her consent, the poster child for battered women.  When she took Chris Brown back after the assault, people were outraged.  How could she do this (and, by extension, how could she do this to them, the people who so desperately wanted her to model the behavior and actions they deemed most appropriate for the situation)?!  The people who were the most angry were those who wanted to distill that entire relationship into that one moment, and just cleave off any other feelings or moments or dynamics that may have been at play.

Of course, physical and emotional violence against an intimate partner, regardless of any party’s gender or sexual orientation, is never ok.

Of course, there are many people, especially women, who stay in abusive relationship because of fear, learned helplessness, mental illness, or a lack of access to resources or support, and that is not ok.

Fool 06But to act as if the presence of violence immediately and completely negates all other feelings and emotions that exist between two people fundamentally misunderstands the nature of intimate, passionate relationships.  Further, because of this misunderstanding we impose new guilt and shame on those who acknowledge the complicated feelings around their attachments, and risk pushing them away from the help they may be seeking.

The oft-maligned “social justice warriors” that seem to have made a career out of perpetual offense would, I’m sure, have all kinds of problems with the messages of this song (I’ve never bothered to seek out these short-sighted interpretations, because I can already imagine them and have no interest in exploring them further) but I think this song is brilliant: it creates a careful balance among three competing ideas.  First, that both parties in this relationship are equally involved in both the passion and in the destruction.  Second, that both the passion and the violence are very real – the presence of one never negates the truth and reality of the other.  And third, that while there is give and take in this relationship (as there often is in some instances of intimate partner violence, though we rarely talk about this), the stakes are higher for one partner and the possible repercussions are not equally distributed between the two (women are much more likely to be murdered by a spouse or partner than men are).  After all, “…if she ever tries to fucking leave again, I’m gonna tie her to the bed and set this house on fire.”  It’s not a convenient way to explain the dynamics of intimate partner violence, and it’s impossible to ignore that there are high stakes – often life and death.  But to misunderstand the nature of many of these relationships is a detriment to all people, myself included, who have ever experienced intimate partner violence.  And in this way, the “outdated” perspective of the show in some way makes it more useful and more open to this type of exploration.  For all its flaws, it leaves open a number of possibilities that are often unwelcome in contemporary productions.

Fool 02As a final note, I was absolutely entranced by the design of this production.  It was a black box space with seating on three sides, and the lighting was absolute perfection; there was a ceiling fan that spun languorously throughout the production; with the masterful way it was lit, it almost became a 5th character in the drama (one that is perhaps even more interesting than Martin, my apologies to Kevin Kelly for the wonderful work he did with the material placed before him).  The fluid motion of the lighting for the Countess’s entrances and exits was fantastic and the set itself had enough detail and staging to feel real but was sparse enough to transport us to whatever sort of situation might make the most sense to each member of the audience.  There was no set designer credited in the play, so my sincerest complements to the technical crew – it was superb!

This show was a difficult one, not without some flaws, but one that I think had a lot to offer its audiences.  The actors committed to their roles and transported us to this sordid scene.  My hope is that it might inspire some future playwright to reimagine this situation, or one like it, but give more time and attention to all of the perspective.  We’ve already heard the male side of things; perhaps it’s time for someone else to take over the narrative.

(Shout out to a lovely couple I met at the show, Lyn and Ned, for some great conversation as well as some fantastic theatre recommendations.  I’m sure future Seattle trips will have more great reviews thanks to their insight!)

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