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ISSUE 120 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/13/2006

Understanding 'Action,' 'Cowboy Mouth'

By Anne Torkelson
Arts Editor

Friday, October 13, 2006

If you like answers and happy endings, “"Action"” and "“Cowboy Mouth"” are not for you.

The two plays, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, were performed together Wednesday through Sunday in Haugen Theater to sold-out audiences. Often funny, unsettling and ambiguous, but always thought-provoking, both plays deal with humans’' response to isolation and abandonment.

“Action” opens with Jeep (Josh Vogen ’'07), Shooter (Nick Sahli ’'07), Liza (Elizabeth Morgan ’'10) and Lupe (Hannah Sorenson ’'10) sitting around a table, attempting to have a holiday meal.

This is no Cleaver family Christmas – a feeling of fear and uncertainty permeates the threadbare room, and the characters soon reveal that a world crisis has taken place,– but what that crisis is, or when it occurred, remains a mystery. Mass media and running water are past realities, and distant sirens sound in the background. The characters have little food, and it seems, at times, little sanity. They display maniacal behaviors: Jeep has a habit of smashing wooden chairs when he becomes angry; Shooter won'’t move from his chair but actually flops onto the floor with it on his back rather than leave it; Lupe throws herself on the ground and savagely begins to chew on her arms out of hunger, even though she knows the turkey will be done cooking in a few minutes. Shooter, Jeep and Lupe take turns frantically rifling through a book, trying to find “the place” where they left off reading aloud, as if finding it would bring some sort of relief or salvation.

They never do find it.

As other strange behaviors and hazy conversations take place, all that becomes clear is the characters’' suffering and need for each other, which they themselves don’'t seem to fully understand. “‘Action’ is kind of vague, in the sense that it makes you work to try to figure out what it’'s about,” said Paul Olson ’'07, who saw the rehearsals Tuesday.

Sahli said, "“I think [the crisis is] about how people cope with human disaster and how that affects our relationships…it’'s about the importance of communication, especially in a world of disaster."”

But as to what the crisis was, he said “nothing was spelled out.” The cast knew there had been a worldly disaster, but they didn’'t focus on its exact nature. He said when the characters talk about “the place,” the cast members each had their own ideas, but they didn'’t focus on what it was supposed to be.

“"What’'s cool about the play is that we didn’'t expect the audience to come to one conclusion,”" Sahli said, “and "we thought, if they did, we weren’'t doing our job.”"

“"Cowboy Mouth”" had more of a tangible storyline than “"Action."” The play revolves around Cavale (Ceara Madson '’07), a woman searching for a rock'‘n’'roll savior with a “cowboy mouth,” who slowly reveals that she seduced musician Slim (Tim Otte ’'10) at gunpoint. The two live together, Slim'’s wife and baby having left him.

Like the characters of “"Action,"” Cavale and Slim exhibit their own strange behaviors, though with a feeling of attempted escape from reality rather than the search for it in “"Action."” The lovers play different roles, running around their room while pretending to rob a store, acting as animals and howling at the moon and pretending to be dead. They simultaneously curse and call each other "“baby.”" Their emotions toward each other and themselves also frequently change, running the gamut from love to disgust, elation to rage. Cavale’'s personification and constant cradling of a dead raven is both sick and intriguing, though the real highlight of the show appears in the play’'s third character – the Lobster Man.

The Lobster Man is just as he sounds (only he’'s a she – Molly Trucano '’10): a giant, bright red crustacean. He glides across the room, speaks in undecipherable noises, brings bagels to the couple and finally reveals himself as a herself in a silver cat suit and Ronald McDonald-inspired boots. What this is supposed to represent, individuals must figure out for themselves.

This ambiguity, however, is the beauty of the plays. Jeanne Willcoxon, the artist-in-residence and director of the performance, said, “"In both of these shows, what I like is [that] Shepard doesn'’t tell you what it’'s about; he doesn'’t give you a meaning.” The meaning is “really in the experience of it,” and everyone comes away with a different interpretation." Willcoxon was attracted to the play's because Shepard deals with people who have been abandoned. "For example," she said,“"The characters of '‘Cowboy Mouth’' have been abandoned by society. Those are the people we don’t want to see, and he puts them on stage so we have to see them […] and what’'s beautiful about them.”"

Suspense saturates each play, teasing the audience with the expectation of finally figuring out what has happened in the characters’ lives. But few audience members would say that this expectation was met, at least in full. It appears that the actors have done their job.

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