BWW Reviews: Out Loud Stages Brave COWBOY MOUTH
Walking into the Black Box Theatre on the 4th floor of the Mathewson Street Methodist Church, you know you're going to be in for a wild ride. Inside, a full apartment set sits in near complete disarray, giving you a glimpse of what you're about to witness.
"Cowboy Mouth," an early Sam Shepard one-act, is an autobiographical play with a fantastical tilt, a story about the real-life affair he had with then-unknown Patti Smith and reshaped as a fable. The play's action takes place in one room, and is alternately naturalistic and surreal. This is not the Shepard of the late 70's and early 80's, whose family plays like "Buried Child" and "Fool for Love" balance insane characters with a followable plot; rather, it's the Shepard of the late 60's and early 70's, drugged-out and celebrated in the Off-Broadway scene.
Early on in this production, it's not hard to see why Shepard is so often produced. His words are rich, complicated, and perhaps most importantly, tortured. These words are beautifully said by our two leads - Sam Appleman as Slim, and Sarah Leach as Cavale - even if their meaning is sometimes lost on the audience.
As Slim, Appleman is very impressive. He swings wildly from despondent to loving, from childlike wonder to violent rage. It's a tough part, and Appleman is up to the challenge. Of particular note is the intensity with which he plays his instruments: drums and guitar, twice each. Here, the production's musical directors Joshua Christensen and Birk Wozniak (who also appeared as the enigmatic Lobster Man), help Appleman to substitute musical virtuosity for raw emotion. The audience isn't thrown if he skips a beat, because he's captivating you with his ferocity.
Sarah Leach, as Cavale, brings a wholly different dynamic to the play. She slinks and crawls her way across the stage, emphasizing physical choices and generally choosing subtlety over intensity. Some of the nicest moments in this show are Leach's story-telling moments, when Slim submits to her and allows her to tell of the dark, and quite possibly fictitious, memories she harbors. It's these quiet moments where the production is at its best, including the climax of the play, wherein the Lobster Man, well-played by a mostly-silent Wozniak, participates in a revelatory metamorphosis.
The two seem very comfortable with each other on stage. Their rapport is an easy one, though sometimes kept at an arm's length. This relaxed quality plays to their advantage in the chaos, as many moments seem ad-libbed but may have just been expertly acted. An amp not working right away, a bottle falling and spilling most of its contents on the floor, Appleman kicking aside a stray lobster tail - these are moments that could trip up an actor and disrupt rhythm, but they plow through with unstoppable inertia.
The Lobster Man metamorphosis moment emphasizes perhaps the production's biggest strength, its tech elements. While many of Rhode Island's upstart independent theatres are skimping on tech for financial or story-telling reasons, Out Loud is electing to put them front and center, to great effect. Katie Hand's costumes are elaborate and impressive, both in vision and construction - not just her showy, vibrant Lobster Man costume but also Slim's worn and dirty clothes and Cavale's punk-rock look, reminiscent of her pet dead crow, Raymond. The set, designed by Marc Tiberiis II and Kira Hawkridge (who also directed) is naturalistic and functional, from a box spring and mattress to a full drum kit, an oversized bean bag to an electric guitar and case. There are extraneous items as well, that are barely if ever used - a tire, a chair, some luggage. These items add context and beg questions, which occasionally distract, but most often provide atmosphere. All of this is covered in a fine layer of trash, which clings and sticks to the actors as they move about, and which the actors toss and destroy, leaving the room in complete destruction by the end, an allegory to their lives. Even the choice of space adds to the show. At the back of the set are large windows, barely covered by tattered curtains, which open out onto the foggy downtown Providence skyline. Indeed, the city itself becomes a character; never mentioned, but often heard, as inevitable sirens and church bells add to the already immersive sound design. In other plays, this would be a distraction; here, it only adds to the organized chaos.
And though it is chaotic, Kira Hawkridge's direction makes pieces of this tough-to-follow play sparkle. "There is power in the risk (the play) is asking the characters and the audience to take," says Hawkridge in the Director's Note, "It doesn't ask you to sit back and enjoy, but rather sit forward and listen." And though it mostly succeeds in that mission, the bottom line is that this is a tough play - one that might be better served in a college text analysis class than in a full production. Here, Out Loud is asking you to do more than what you might be used to, to attend a piece full of questions that don't have easy answers and characters that aren't inherently likeable or relatable. That being said, it certainly is gleefully counter-programmed against the deluge of Christmas-themed plays elsewhere in the state. In other words, if you're looking for light theatrical fare this season, I hear there's a production of a Dickens classic down the street. But here in the heart of Providence is a brave production of a tough Shepard play that challenges you to think, and dares you to enter the disturbed world of the "angel with the cowboy mouth."