FOOL FOR LOVE by Sam Shepard (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House). To August 4. $38-$98. soulpepper.ca. See listing. Rating: NNN
Soulpepper’s slick revival of Sam Shepard’s 1983 play feels very timely.
We’re in a cultural moment of reassessing, reclaiming and reimagining the cowboy: there’s a proliferation of cowboy imagery in pop culture – particularly among queer and POC musicians – and many writers and artists are finding receptive audiences with explorations of male rage and violence. Fool For Love is a reminder that the late playwright was deconstructing American mythmaking, masculinity and systems of power long before the current zeitgeist.
The drama unfolds entirely in a cheap motel on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert, where cowboy Eddie (Eion Bailey) has tracked down his ex-lover May (Cara Gee) determined to convince her to get back together with him and move to his farm in Wyoming. She is livid, having worked hard to break free from their unhealthy bond and establish a life on her own terms.
Over a brisk and engaging 80 minutes, they scream, fight, slam doors and pound walls. Meanwhile, downstage right, an Old Man (Stuart Hughes) keeps watch, occasionally interjecting to commiserate with Eddie. There are moments when Eddie and May’s respective new lovers threaten to stir up intrigue, but Fool For Love isn’t so much about what happens but how it is happening and, eventually, why it is happening.
Most of the dialogue is shouted – Shepard’s production note “this play is to be performed relentlessly without a break” is quoted in the program – and Gee and Bailey are both cranked up to 11. The success of this intentionally exhausting show hinges heavily on the leads existing in a slippery space between magnetism and menace. It’s an ugly melodrama rooted in the instinctual, but director Frank Cox-O’Connell relies too much on darkly comic or jarring beats in Shepard’s script to vary the emotional tenor rather than subtle inflection or the rapport between his two leads, whose performances, at times, come off as mannered – albeit loud.
Bailey, styled like a scruffy hipster hunk by costume designer Shannon Lea Doyle, doesn’t quite capture his character’s deep-seated rage. Gee, a rising screen star returning to the Toronto stage after an over-five-year absence, physically throws herself into the role of May but often seems constrained by precision blocking.
As Gee notes in the program, her very presence as an Indigenous actor adds a political layer to this explosive story, extending Shepard’s critique of cyclical violence to society’s unwillingness to grapple with the ways colonial attitudes and violence have continued into the present.
As such, this Fool For Love is similar to other recent reboots and revivals that have used diverse casting to recontextualize contemporary classics, but unlike, say, Buddies’ recent Lilies production, it doesn’t add new elements to hammer the point.
Themes of incest, alcoholism, cyclical violence and paternal neglect gradually become apparent as the action hurtles toward a reckoning for the Old Man. What at first seems like a Greek tragedy chorus device is gradually revealed as Shepard’s classic alcoholic father character. Hughes, delivering the most nuanced performance, powerfully brings it all home as an entitled man who refuses to look inward.
There’s also a fourth character (Alex McCooeye) who shows up late – with a great entrance – but mainly acts as light comic relief and a receptacle for lazy backstory exposition.
The show’s claustrophobia is emphasized by Lorenzo Savoini’s long, cut-out set that frames the action akin to widescreen cinema. That impression is further compounded by lurid and contrasting lighting design (by Simon Rossiter), subtle sound design (by Andrew Penner) and an offensively ugly floral bedspread that will sear into your eye-sockets like image burn-in on a TV screen.
But unlike great cinema, this production only fitfully blurs the boundary between reality and melodrama.