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Fool for Love

Azusa Productions

at Stage Left Theatre

By Justin Hayford

Perhaps it was the beautiful but fleeting warm summer evening that induced melancholy. As I stood on the sidewalk outside Stage Left's semidumpy storefront facade--with its childishly bright colors splashed beneath sepulchral black roofing tiles, a hash of ill-conceived, well-intentioned design failures belittled by the well-marketed upscale Italian eatery that's sprung up next door--I couldn't help but feel a debilitating sadness at the impending death of Chicago theater.

True, at this moment Chicago is the greatest theater city in the nation, the place where just about anyone can throw together a shoestring production in any cramped hole in the wall and audiences and critics will come. The now institutional Steppenwolf invites many of the city's most radical avant-garde artists to play in its studio while devoting its main stage at times to works as daring and commercially unviable as Frank Galati's visionary Valparaiso. Even the stodgy old Theater on the Lake is producing cutting-edge work.

There are unmistakable signs of mortality, however, sporting such shiny coats of well-monied sparkle that they look like signs of life. Having convinced ourselves that a booming economy solves all social and cultural ills, we flock to bold, handsome displays of capital to assuage what remains of our consciences--yet this is the kind of milieu that suffocates live theater. Just as new fortresses of half-million-dollar condos spring up every week in "transitional neighborhoods," displacing the working poor to fulfill the manifest destinies of Pottery Barn and Starbucks consumers, the Nederlander Organization and SFX Theatrical Group are throwing piles of money at "Broadway in Chicago," glutting three Loop theaters with well-machined Broadway product masquerading as live performance. Worse, the major media have treated this deadly onslaught as a cultural renaissance, as though the off-Loop scene never existed; in her report on "Broadway in Chicago," Channel Seven's Theresa Gutierrez explained that when the Loop scene dried up, purportedly in the 1960s, Chicagoans were forced to go to New York to see live theater.

With friends like these, Chicago theater doesn't need enemies. If most enterprises are going the way of the corporate-slick Italian eatery, turning neighborhoods into franchise malls and lives into lifestyles, what chance do oddball oases like Stage Left, Angel Island, the Lunar Cabaret, and dozens of similar spaces have? Can Chicagoans appreciate rough, unfinished, unpredictable theater when a mocha grande is perfect on demand every time?

But if the Lincoln Square Starbucks can become the focus of a street protest, as it was last weekend, perhaps there's hope for off-Loop theater. And if you'd like a place to plant your faith, plant it in tiny Azusa Productions' revival of Sam Shepard's 1984 Fool for Love, currently running at Stage Left. With its cramped staging, thrift-store design, and nonsensical lighting, this show is far from a mocha grande. But glaring faults cannot diminish its powerful honesty--indeed, its abundant mistakes prove that it was cobbled together by human beings rather than packaged by a marketing team.

The play is nearly devoid of plot. Eddie and May, tortured on-again, off-again lovers for 15 years, are holed up in a western motel. Eddie never lets May forget that he drove 2,480 miles out of his way to be with her. The last time he left her, it was in a tin mobile home with a stack of fashion magazines he hoped would keep her occupied until he felt like coming back. Now that he's found her again he'd like to dump her in the back of his pickup and take her away, but she insists she doesn't love him anymore--despite her agonized screams every time he leaves her in the room for more than 30 seconds.

For the better part of 90 minutes the pair tear each other to shreds while a ghostly old man watches from a rocking chair on the far side of the stage. Gradually the horrifying truth behind their maniacal relationship is revealed, and May's Milquetoast date steps into a minefield when he shows up to take her to the movies.

Azusa's solid, respectable production is rarely great but always intelligent. What's wonderful is the way its loose ends and unfinished impulses--many of which probably result from a lack of money and time--create the play anew before our very eyes. This is not a show that came finished out of a box; it's still emerging from a flurry of problems and ideas. It's an evening of active human creativity that can't be perfected or mass-produced but must be lived through. And director Maggie Speer's highly personal take on the play could piss you off--an experience to be relished in a culture that seeks merely to entertain and reassure.

When Shepard directed the original production of Fool for Love in New York, he played up the trauma: his actors kicked and banged the walls of the set so many times I was amazed they could remain standing until the final curtain. By contrast Speer plays up the script's comedy--the one time Eddie knocks his head against the wall he looks completely ridiculous. While Speer's rather methodical pacing keeps much of the comedy from paying off, May and Eddie are fools in an almost Chekhovian manner, so stupidly and desperately in love it's hard to repress a sympathetic chuckle.

In a shrewd move, Speer contrasts the overall comedic tone with moments of bracing viciousness. When May (Karen Foley) takes swings at Eddie (Eric Lumbard), they're not phony-baloney stage-combat punches of the sort pulled with depressing regularity around town. Foley flings her fists at him with everything she's got; if Lumbard didn't duck, he'd have a broken jaw. Likewise when Eddie's impish, smiling reserve vanishes in outbursts of rage, the shock is visceral.

But the production's slow pace prohibits momentum from developing. Part of the problem may have been opening-night hesitancy; given the strength of Speer's cast, in a week or two this show may be steaming along. But paradoxically enough the problem may also stem from Speer's deep commitment to Shepard's work. She's directed five of his plays for Azusa--and anyone willing to tackle his 1967 thrill ride La Turista gets a gold star on her permanent record. In Fool for Love Speer takes great care with Shepard's words, finding comedic nuances in the most unexpected places. But at times her almost reverential approach partially plugs the emotional flood that should sweep May and Eddie along, thereby diminishing the production's overall success.

That same care also gives this production an overwhelming integrity, however. This is that rare production devoid of bullshit. There is no ego or pretense here, just a group of artists putting everything they've got into doing a good play. Speer's committed cast--which also includes Peter DeFaria and Jim Morley--never veers from the story, never includes some entertaining but extraneous bit of business to please the crowd or gloss over a difficult passage. These actors understand their duty as artisans: to craft each moment for the story's sake rather than their own.

To accomplish this feat, they remain locked into one another with an almost pathological intensity. When May and Eddie stalk each other across the room, for example, you feel not only their chemistry but their history. You may not believe that either of these actors ever set foot under a California desert sun--hell, you won't believe any of the furniture onstage has ever been within 100 miles of a motel. But you will be instantly convinced that these two characters have been trapped in a lovers' battle for 15 years. Like everyone in this production, they're feeling each other out at every moment, responding to what's actually happening onstage rather than recapitulating spontaneous moments from rehearsal.

With this kind of commitment to spontaneity--a commitment that does not compromise attention to craft--misfires are bound to occur. At times the actors drop the ball with such a thud it's a marvel that two minutes later a scene is flying at high altitude. And little can be concealed in Stage Left's tiny theater, where the actors are rarely more than ten feet from most everyone in the audience. But when this kind of volatility is backed up by a caring intelligence, there is no greater thrill in the theater, which in its truest sense cannot be commodified into anonymous upscale drivel.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Maggie Speer.

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