IF YOU GO
What: Sam Shepard play about a cowboy, his girlfriend and a mysterious old man in a rocking chair
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 24
Where: Arts Complex on the FGCU campus
Information: (239) 590-7268, theatrelab.fgcu.edu
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
Florida Gulf Coast University's theatre program continued their season with a play for the Valentine crowd, Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love." My second foray into collegiate theatre turns up fascinating themes and a strong performance or two, if not a cohesive whole.
Shepard writes lyrical plays that brush across the stage like dreams. He offers visions of the American West - the one that exists now, mostly in decline - in sparse, spare language. Audiences sometimes resist his material, because the plays don't begin or end neatly. Think of art or music; experience the work as a whole.
"Fool for Love" finds May and Eddie at odds in a seedy hotel room. Will they? Won't they? Why are they fighting? What happened between them? Why is May packing suitcases? Why does Eddie have a shotgun? Who's driving the sleek black car in the parking lot? Why is Eddie's truck on fire?
And who - exactly - is the weathered cowboy sitting in a rocker sipping whiskey at the corner of the stage?
"Fool for Love" packs a lot into its 75 minutes. Bluntly, the show goes everywhere and nowhere, does a few shots of tequila and doubles back again. Shepard plays with the idea of love as a force so powerful it can utterly destroy people, driving them to reckless behavior and beyond. He wants audiences to understand what it might be like to love someone so much you can't live without them - and yet can't live with them.
Detailed stage directions written into every page of the play offer a portrait of Eddie and May as two magnets. Turned one way, they can't resist each other; turned another, they repel. A desolate, dingy motel room setting (neatly accomplished here with barbed wire creating "walls") suggests both the barren West and impending claustrophobia.
FGCU professor Barry Cavin, directing the show, favors a high-concept, high-style approach. "Fool for Love" may have needed more grounding than style even though the material itself approaches the metaphysical. The very real human moments need an anchor in truth before making the leap into the absurd. Cavin's young actors make a strong effort, but much of the play's subtext and message simply gets lost.
Armando Luis Rivera gives the play's strongest performance as hard-charging Eddie. He gives the character strength and vitality, plus a loud, almost loutish urgency that fits Eddie's cowboy masculinity.
A long monologue that finally weaves the play's disparate strands together - Shepard calls them "arias" - offers the night's finest moment. Lights make a subtle shift, Rivera assumes a storyteller's pose and gives a speech that becomes part tale, part wish, part history and mostly pure magic. In his bold voice, words become figures spun out of blackness into the play's dreamscape - inky figures of a father and a son, walking down into the Texas night, across fields and roads toward a house, toward another wife. Toward another life. Toward a daughter. Toward a sister. Toward something that cannot be, yet is.
In these moments, "Fool for Love" reaches its zenith. The play connects Rebakah Goldberg's damaged, grasping for affection May with Eddie's stormy soul. Both arc toward Jim Brock's mysterious, slurring cowboy, a figure from their distant past. And Mark Hancock's innocent interloper Martin is left to witness it all.
I wish the staging and scenic design (also from Cavin) had gone fully conceptual or been as realistic as described in the script. The mashup on stage never communicates what I think it is Cavin wants to say.
Utilitarian furniture, an off-putting burgundy bedspread and odd buff-colored carpet seem at war with the barbed wire and chunky fence post walls. I can see where the design was going for "unsettling on a budget," but it looks unfinished somehow. There's a statement there - somewhere - about love filling an empty heart, breaking chains and more. It just gets a little lost.
One bright spot (literally), comes from Cavin's picturesque lighting design, which matches the piece perfectly. Headlights of approaching cars play across a stylized desert tree. Shadows play across the motel room floor. Sequences of Shepard's lyrical poetry rise out of the dreamscape in what seems like pools of moonlight.
"Fool for Love" offers an interesting, thoughtful and wonderfully literate experience. At $7, Sam Shepard is a bargain. Look especially for Rivera as he gives life, love and longing to Eddie's fast, furious cowboy.