"THEATER has such tremendous potential," said play wright Sam Shepard in a meeting with students at the Loeb last February "But actors have to be courageous. If they don't have any courage courage, they're not worth going the distance with."
Shepard would have been disappointed if he had staved around Harvard long enough to see the American Repertory Theatre's staging of his play Angel City. It's a classic example of wasted potential an accomplished director and cast took on a superb modern play then backed down when the going got tough The play criticizes stale, warmed-over fare posing as art, and that is exactly what the A. R. T. has dished up. Their production, while competent, lacks the vitality and even the horror central to Shepard's vision, and it lacks anything remotely like courage Shepard has a phrase for this kind of safe, deadly theater-- "chicken shit."
Angle City presents a view of Hollywood and the American movie industry where greed and ambition have destroyed the last vestiges of artistic integrity Shepard says he wrote Angel City after a bad experience in an office in Hollywood and his cynical pessimism shows through every line of the script Each character in the play has a dream Lanx wants to be a boxer, Miss Scoons wants to be an actress. Tympani dreams of owning a diner And each has sold out, abandoned his integrity in order to try and claw his way to the top Money is the driving force in Angel City and any movie its inhabitants create is considered terrific as long as it sells.
Two characters, Rabbit and Wheeler, act out the play's central conflict Wheeler, as his name implies, is a wheeler-dealer in the movie industry, and Rabbit has come to "the city of angels" in search of money and power. They scheme to collaborate on a movie which will "drive people right off the deep end and leave them blithering in the aisles" But they never achieve this ultimate motion picture of the city seeps into their skin and devours them alive
Such a play requires more than just competence from actors The cast includes the best acting talent of the A.R.T., and it is not enough. The cast lacks both inspiration and courage, neither of which are provided by director David Wheeler. Two seasons ago. Wheeler directed a truly inspired True West (also by Shepard) at the Hasty Pudding, since then, he must have run out of steam He too readily exchanges the anguish which is central to Angel City for cheap and easy humor The audience is entertained, but never moved.
In a production often sorely lacking in energy, some members of the cast try valiantly to liven things up Thomas Derrah, who played a puckish Tom Sawyer in the A R T's recent production of Big River, shows his versatility in the role of Wheeler His pockets overflow with ballpoint pens, he wears trousers hiked up around his crotch, glasses and a bow tie, and he carries a golf club all of which makes him resemble an anxious pre med before an exam more than a movie producer In the second act, Derrah's creepy qualities intensity as he sprouts fangs and his skin turns green Writhing like a dismembered lizard, he cries. "I have a million movies! And do you know where they are! They're in my blood! They're churning around in my blood!"
Karen MacDonald as Miss Scoons also tries to make up for her colleagues' lackluster performances. She is, in turn, seductive and wildly funny as she wafts in and out of the room, rattling off a monologue in rapid Spanish or speaking in an Irish brogue. It is too bad that Harry Murphy doesn't even try. His character, Lanx, is supposed to aggressively manipulate the others; instead, he is so weak that he, and we, quickly lose sight of his purpose.
When MacDonald and Murphy engage in a mock battle towards the end of the second act, their tired, feeble attempt epitomizes the production's most serious faults. In this scene, as in much of the rest of the play, director and cast waffle between satire and farce in a what should be a powerful moment. A little aid from costumes and lights might have made this scene bearable as it is the silliness of the situation is heightened by frumpy shrouds and light too bright to allow for any sense of mystery. The set too hampers the actors efforts by staging the scene on a second recessed proscenium, the director removes the actors even further from the audience Moments like this sport the second act, which could and should be both powerful and horrifying
The extraordinary talent of Ben Halley, Jr., so fully and wonderfully exploited in Big River shines very little in Angel City As Tympani Halley rolls his head wildly, concentrating on his quest for the perfect rhythm. But his energy is dulled, pulled down by the production's lethargy, John Bottoms as Rabbit is the worst offender, however, in the category of torpid A R T actors. I'm after power, "he whimpers, but the audience knows that all he needs is a good night's sleep
LIKE TYMPANI, the character of Sax, played by Joel Press, searches for a musical answer to the music industry's dilemma The play wright clearly sides with the saxophone player, whose solution of jazz and creative improvisation is ignored by the movie producers as they stagnate in their own deathly juices Shepard looks for artistic form of expression with the elusive quality of "presence," describing it as a realization that comes to the viewer when he encounters something that's undeniable." Stale Hollywood movies and chicken-shit plays don't have that presence improvisational music, he says sometimes does
In October 1980, a talented cast and director staged Angel City in the Loeb's Experimental theater. In the claustrophobic confines of the Ex they exposed the message of Shepard's play in all its horror Chances are good that no one in the A R T company saw the Ex production Too bad--they could have learned a lot The undergraduate Ex production had much of the courage and the presence that the A R T's play so badly lacks.